A judge has vacated the 2013 murder conviction of late NFL star Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez hanged himself in his Massachusetts jail cell on April 19. The following week, his lawyers then filed a motion to vacate the former Patriots tight end’s murder conviction.
In Massachusetts, murder convictions are automatically appealed before the state’s highest court, but since Hernandez died before that appeal could go through, a little-known legal loophole called the abatement doctrine offered lawyers a way to get him off postmortem.
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“Whenever someone dies during an appeal of their criminal case, the conviction is eventually vacated. The reason for that is the way the law looks at it, you had an appeal going for you and for all they know, the appeal could have found you innocent,” Peter Elikann, a Boston-based criminal defense lawyer, told Metro in April.
The judge agreed, dropping all charges.
“In the interest of justice the court has no choice but to vacate the conviction,” Judge E. Susan Garsh of Bristol County Superior Court said in her ruling Tuesday morning as Hernandez’s fiancé Shayanna Jenkins Hernandez wiped tears from her eyes.
Bristol Country District Attorney Thomas Quinn III wrote in a court filing from last week that "abatement" is not always required if a defendant dies while an appeal is pending.
Quinn said this is especially pertinent when “a defendant’s death is a result of his own conscious, deliberate and voluntary act,” as with suicide, the AP reported.
Hernandez's suicide sent rumors swirling that he took his own life to ensure money for his family.
The ex-Patriots player was playing for the team on a $40 million contract, which was terminated after his 2013 arrest for Odin Lloyd's murder. It is unclear whether the Patriots will be on the hook for further payout to Hernandez's estate now that his murder conviction has been vacated, but if they are, lawyers have speculated the money would be untouchable by civil wrongful death suits by Lloyd's family and the families of two other alleged victims, Daniel de Abreau and Safiro Furtado. Herenandez was cleared of their murders in April just days before committing suicide.
“Pensions [are] not reachable assets, so they are not able to collect against that,” David White, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association told Metro in April.
Hernandez was otherwise broke. Court records filed earlier this month indicated his only asset was his New Bedford home, worth an estimated $1.3 million.
Hernandez isn’t the first high-profile murderer to have a conviction tossed due to the Abatement Doctrine.
John Salvi, who was convicted of killing two abortion clinic workers and wounding five others during a shooting spree in Brookline in 1994, had his convictions vacated after killing himself in prison two years later.
Father John Geoghan, a Catholic priest convicted on child molestation charges and known as a key figure in the clergy sex abuse scandal that mired the Boston Archdiocese, also had his convictions vacated after he was beaten to death in his cell in 2003 at the same Massachusetts maximum-security prison where Hernandez died on April 19.