By Patrick S. White, Esq.
Early Wednesday morning, former New England Patriots Tight End and Bristol native, Aaron Hernandez, was found unresponsive in his prison cell at the Souza-Baranowski Maximum Security Correctional Center. An hour later, at UMass Memorial-HealthAlliance Hospital, Hernandez was pronounced dead of an apparent suicide. While Hernandez’s death may seem like the end to a tragic tale of a talented young man who had the world at his feet and lost it all as a result of senseless act of violence, legally speaking, his death begins a new chapter in the bizarre story of Hernandez’s life.
Hernandez, who five days before his death was found not guilty of the 2012 double homicide of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu, was serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. However, due to a common law doctrine used in Massachusetts known as Abatement (or Abatement ab initio), Hernandez is now legally, for all intents and purposes, an innocent man.
Abatement is a little known and rarely used common law doctrine that applies when a criminal defendant dies while the individual’s appeal is still pending. The doctrine has been used in other high profile cases both federally (Enron’s Ken Lay) and in Massachusetts state court (Priest and accused child molester John J. Geoghan). Legally, when a defendant dies prior to his or her conviction becoming final, all criminal proceedings against the defendant, including any convictions, are vacated. The courts’ rationale behind upholding this doctrine is two-fold. First, they believe it is unfair to preserve a conviction against a defendant, who is deceased, when that conviction has not been scrutinized by appellate review. Second, the deterrent factors that justify pursuing criminal actions against defendants are no longer applicable to a defendant who is dead.
In Hernandez’s case, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and five weapons charges in the death of Odin Lloyd, and illegal possession of a firearm in the double murder involving Furtado and de Abreu. However, Hernandez was appealing these convictions and at the time of his death. According to the Supreme Court case, Dove v. United States, 423 U.S. 325, 325 (1976), the doctrine of abatement applies to situations where a defendant dies while pursuing an appeal of right, not a discretionary appeal. Since Hernandez’s appeal was a direct appeal and not a petition writ of certiorari or some other discretionary appeal, the doctrine of Abatement applies and Hernandez’s convictions will likely be vacated.
While the doctrine of abatement is a bizarre twist to an already inexplicable sequence of events in the life and death of Aaron Hernandez, its application to Hernandez’s case could potentially have serious ramifications outside of criminal law. A mere ninety minutes after Hernandez was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd, he was released by the New England Patriots. As a result of his arrest and subsequent convictions, the Patriots refused to pay Hernandez his $2.5 million base salary (the guaranteed portions for the 2013 and 2014 seasons) as well as the final $3.25 million installment of his $12.5 million signing bonus, citing Paragraph 11 of the Standard Player Contract. This paragraph allowed the Patriots to terminate Hernandez because he “ha[d] engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by Club to adversely affect or reflect on Club…” With Hernandez now being legally absolved of any wrongdoing, it is highly likely that Hernandez’s estate will seek payment of the nearly $6 million the Patriots withheld, since Aaron Hernandez’s death has made him (legally) an innocent man.
Patrick S. White, Esq. is an attorney at the Law Office of Christopher Duby in Hamden, Conn. where he focuses on criminal law.