The Court Of Public Opinion Has Already Convicted This Man
One of the finest hallmarks of our nation’s criminal justice system is the notion that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. Legally speaking, this means that in a criminal case, the prosecution bears the burden of proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt." Simply put, if a juror has even the slightest bit of doubt that a person is guilty of committing the crime they are charged with, they are instructed to find that person not guilty.
So why does it seem like Aaron Hernandez has already been convicted of murder?
This story has gripped the sports world over the last few weeks. Media outlets across the world are fighting to deliver any developments relating to this high-profile investigation. Hernandez has officially been charged with first-degree murder and a bevy of gun violations that could land him in prison from the rest of his life.
Hernandez’s notoriety as a star NFL tight end for the New England Patriots has made this case the most compelling criminal investigation since Ray Lewis was charged with murder more than a decade ago. After he initially refused to cooperate with investigators regarding the death of his apparent friend, Odin Lloyd, law enforcement aggressively pursued what they believe is a solid trail of evidence linking Hernandez to Lloyd’s death.
At this point, the circumstantial evidence surrounding Hernandez and his actions on the day Lloyd was killed are incredibly damaging. His attempts to destroy his home surveillance system and cell phone beg the only plausible question: If you’re innocent, why would you destroy these things?
As if this wasn’t bad enough, a rental car in Hernandez’s name was found near the murder scene with a .45 shell casing inside. The same type that was found at the murder scene.
While all of this could lead a rational person to believe Hernandez is guilty of murder, remember that the prosecution’s burden is to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hernandez planned and deliberately carried out the murder. Under Massachusetts law, if the jury does not find Hernandez guilty of first-degree murder, they can still find him guilty of second-degree murder, a crime that carries a potential sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years. This can happen if the jury believes that Hernandez did not plan, or act deliberately, in the killing.
But let's assess some weaknesses in the state's case. The prosecution has yet to find the murder weapon used in Lloyd's slaying. There is no DNA evidence linking Hernandez to the killing either (yet). Finally, unless the prosecution is protecting their best asset, there are no eye witnesses to verify that it was in fact Hernandez who pulled the trigger. The bottom line is the prosecution is relying heavily on circumstantial evidence to prove this case. This is a dangerous proposition for any prosecutor when the defense only needs to bring out a sliver of doubt to obtain an acquittal.
To give you a visual, if Lady Liberty's scales of justice are tipped ever so slightly to symbolize doubt that the accused committed the crime, the jury should acquit.
If you want to know what the general public thinks of all this, just skim a random message board online. In the court of public opinion, Hernandez has already been convicted and sentenced to a life behind bars. Social media, blogs and the Internet have completely tainted this whole situation. Anyone with a smartphone can publish material online. People have access to information at the touch of their finger. Literally. And the scary thing is, this information may not be true and oftentimes never backed by facts or sources. Hernandez’s release by the Patriots, his checkered past and the judge’s refusal to grant bail are not only adding to his personal woes, but they’ve fueled the inference that he’s guilty, regardless of the fact that his actual criminal trial is still months away.
The reality is, 30 years ago, Hernandez’s chances of an acquittal were incredibly greater than they are today. Any assertion of Hernandez’s guilt without a full assessment of the facts, as well as a thorough review of the evidence – both direct and circumstantial – would be irresponsible. Our criminal justice system was designed to give the charged individual due process of the law and a fair trial. In this case, a fair trial can only be had if the jury pool is uncorrupted. Hernandez is trending harder than Kim Kardashian right now, so finding a jury that hasn’t already read damaging or harmful things about Hernandez seems almost impossible.
But this is precisely what the prosecution wants. They are doing everything they can to depict Hernandez as a violent killer outside the confines of the courtroom. Do you really believe Massachusetts police needed to bring multiple police officers to arrest Hernandez and escort him out of his million dollar home in the suburbs? That was nothing more than a show. Hernandez gave no indication that he was going to pull an O.J. and a simple phone call to his defense counsel would have sufficed.
Alas, with high-profile cases like this, district attorneys commonly seek publicity. It’s an opportunity for them to elevate their careers should they get a conviction. This case has captivated a nation obsessed with the NFL. Lead prosecutors here would most certainly declare this a “career case.” To an aggressive DA, getting a conviction is like winning the Super Bowl for them.
No matter how you look at Hernandez’s situation, it’s a horrifying one for him. His army of high-priced lawyers have an insurmountable task of somehow convincing a jury that he had nothing to do with Lloyd's death. In the public eye, the damage has been done. Even if he’s acquitted of murder, Hernandez still faces the real possibility of jail time for the gun charges.
The tragedy here is not that an NFL superstar with millions of dollars has fallen from grace.
The tragedy is that an individual was brutally murdered.
It’s now in the hands of our justice system to determine Hernandez’s fate, but let’s not forget the notion that all individuals charged with a crime in the United States are innocent until proven guilty.
Scott Daniels is a practicing attorney in New York City.