A lot has been reported in the media and debated since Aaron Hernandez – by all present appearances – committed suicide this past Wednesday. Most of the debate has surrounded the public’s confusion over this business that Hernandez’ suicide means that he was “not guilty” over the murder of Odin Lloyd (which of course, he was convicted of in April 2015.)
So, what’s this all about? A very old and little-used Massachusetts law, that’s what. Its formal name is“abatement ab initio,” and it loosely translates to “removed from the beginning.” It is a common law which has its roots in British law, when Massachusetts was still a British colony. The legal rationale behind this law was that, since it was possible that someone’s conviction might have been legally defective in some manner, that person should have the right of a full appeal – and that if some intervening event prevented that appeal (such as the convict’s death,) then the person’s name should be legally “cleared.” Massachusetts is only one of a handful of states in the U.S. that either still have this common law on the books, or that still recognize it as valid. Many states have either modified it in some manner, or nullified its applicability to present cases. In all of the states that have nullified this doctrine, it’s been done so in the name of the rights of crime victims. It’s not hard to see why.
Thus, technically speaking, since Hernandez died before his appeal of the Odin Lloyd conviction could be heard, his conviction is voided “From the beginning” – as if the conviction never took place. It’s what is otherwise knowns as a “legal fiction,” but the main reason this is generating so much buzz in this case, is that the family of Odin Lloyd was and still is suing Hernandez for monetary damages for causing Odin’s death.
A lot of uninformed people have jumped the gun to presume that what this means is that Hernandez’ surviving family would be entitled to the balance of his reported $40 million NFL contract with the New England Patriots Football Club. Such people have presumed that because Hernandez died legally innocent of the charges he was convicted of, that “means” that the Patriots revoked his contract illegally when they cut him from the team after his 2013 arrest for Lloyd’s murder. And, extending that reasoning, if the Patriots revocation of Hernandez’ contract was illegal, then they (the Patriots) owe Hernandez’ estate the balance of his contract, which could amount to millions.
My message as a Massachusetts felony crimes defense lawyer: Not so fast. These people have not only jumped the gun, they’ve jumped a few other minor items: Such as admission to law school, completion of law school, passing the bar, and practice as a criminal defense lawyer.
Relative to the New England Patriots Football Club, there are two issues raised by Hernandez’ death: 1) On a strictly legal level, are they obligated to pay any additional monies to Hernandez’ estate, pursuant to the contract he signed with them prior to his arrest and conviction of Odin Lloyd’s murder? 2) Are the Patriots morally ‘obligated’ to pay some unknown sum to either Hernandez’ estate, or to the family of Odin Lloyd?
Those two questions are extremely different.
On a strictly legal level, I think it would be quite a challenge to persuade a court that the New England Patriots legally owe Hernandez’ estate any monies pursuant to the contract he signed with them. Regardless of the technical effect of his murder conviction being voided by this law, Hernandez almost breached his contract with the Patriots, given his criminal conduct prior to his arrest; this relates to contract provisions prohibiting criminal conduct. The NFL’s decision to void Hernandez’ contract in 2013 was based solely on his arrest and his conduct subsequent to his arrest – the contract revocation was not based on his conviction, which happened two years later. Theoretically, an extremely talented attorney might still prevail against these facts, but it would be an uphill legal battle. Further, nothing in this arcane law would require that the NFL reactivate Hernandez’s contract terms due to his death.
Whether the New England Patriots – given everything that has transpired surrounding this sad series of human tragedies – owes some moral obligation to either Hernandez’ estate, or, more arguably, to the family of Odin Lloyd – is another story.
Regardless of how this story all plays out in the end, it will always remain a story of pathos and tragedy, of promise and waste.