A judge has thrown out the 2013 murder conviction of ex-NFL star Aaron Hernandez because he died before his appeal could be heard.
The former New England Patriots tight end hanged himself in his prison cell on April 19 while serving a life sentence in the killing of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. His suicide came just five days after he was acquitted in a separate double slaying in 2012.
Judge E. Susan Garsh said a legal doctrine that calls for vacating convictions when a defendant dies before an appeal can be heard was binding precedent. She said she was compelled to follow it.
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"Abatement has been practiced in federal and state courts for more than a century," she said, adding that there is no proof that Hernandez killed himself knowing it could lead to his conviction being tossed.
"This court cannot know why Aaron Hernandez chose to end his life... a tragic act that may have complex and myriad causes," she said.
Ursula Ward, Lloyd's mother, and Shaneah Jenkins, Lloyd's girlfriend, were among those in the courtroom Tuesday.
"I know everyone is looking for me to be angry, but I'm not," Ward said following the hearing. "In our book, he's guilty and he's gonna always be guilty."
Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said his office will appeal the decision to Supreme Judicial Court.
"There was a trial, he was convicted," Quinn said. "You can't just snap your fingers and have that go away."
Garsh's ruling came following a 40-minute hearing Tuesday in Bristol County Superior Court.
Hernandez's appellate lawyers said his conviction in the Lloyd case was not considered final because the automatic appeal he was entitled to had not been heard at the time of his death.
"This is an established common law doctrine," appellate attorney John Thompson argued. "It involves just two questions - is there a pending direct appeal and has the appellant died during the course of the pending direct appeal? Both of those facts are undisputed here."
Prosecutors, however, argued that dismissing Hernandez's murder conviction would reward his "conscious, deliberate and voluntary" act of taking his own life. They said a defendant's death while an appeal is pending does not always require what is known as "abatement," including when "a defendant's death is a result of his own conscious, deliberate and voluntary act."
"It was a purposeful act. It's a conscious and voluntary act," said Bristol County Assistant District Attorney Patrick Bomberg. "There is a reason, a motive for the defendant to have done it. That, I'm suggesting, separates this case.
"The defendant should not be able to accomplish in death what he could not accomplish in life," he added.
In a motion filed before Tuesday's hearing, Thompson said documents including the state's death certificate and excerpts from a suicide note Hernandez wrote to his fiancee should be disregarded because they are irrelevant to the proceedings.
That motion was denied by the judge on Tuesday morning.