Former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez‘s celebrity status was the reason the one-time NFL star worth $40 million was targeted by police and prosecutors in the murder of a semi-pro football player, one of his defense lawyers told a jury Thursday.
But the prosecution in the long-anticipated Massachusetts trial said in opening statements that a web of phone records, surveillance video and other evidence will demonstrate that Hernandez not only orchestrated, but also participated and covered up the killing of his former friend Odin Lloyd.
Hernandez, 25, pleaded not guilty in the 2013 killing of Lloyd, 27, who dated the sister of Hernandez’s fiancée.
Two alleged accomplices, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, have pleaded not guilty and will be tried separately.
An unexplained issue with a juror delayed the opening before vastly divergent portraits of Hernandez were presented to the jury.
At noon, prosecutor Patrick Bomberg began recounting the state’s largely circumstantial case to the jury, saying Hernandez and two other men killed Lloyd and then “took evidence with them and tried to and, in some cases were successful, in destroying evidence.”
The three picked up Lloyd and drove to a secluded area where the victim was shot six times, Bomberg said. They allegedly left evidence at the scene.
“The commonwealth will prove to you that he committed….the crime of murder,” the prosecutor said.
Though the motive for the killing is unclear, Bomberg said that Lloyd and Hernandez were a nightclub June 15 and that the defendant appeared annoyed. Hernandez was angry when he left the club.
Hernandez allegedly conspired with friends to kill Lloyd two days later and dump his body in an industrial park, the prosecutor said, building his case on phone records, surveillance video, business records and witness accounts. DNA evidence found on a shell casing at the scene is consistent with Hernandez’s DNA, Bomberg said.
As Bomberg described the crime, some of Lloyd’s relatives could be seen weeping in court.
Ursula Ward, Lloyd’s mother, walked out of the courtroom at one point.
Defense attorney Michael Fee sought to plant doubt in the minds of jurors, telling them that police and prosecutors targeted Hernandez the celebrity and football standout.
Hernandez, he said, “never had a chance” because authorities locked in on him right away.
“The prosecution will try to dazzle and distract you,” Fee added. “They will go on and on.”
The investigation into Lloyd’s death was “sloppy and unprofessional” and the state’s case against his client is “just a story … and it’s not true,” he said.
“The evidence will show that Aaron Hernandez did not murder his friend Odin Lloyd,” Fee told the jury.
Shayanna Jenkins, Hernandez’s fiancée, entered the courtroom earlier and sat in the first row on the left side. Next to her were the defendant’s older brother, DJ Hernandez, and his mother, Terri Hernandez.
Ward arrived with five people and sat in the front row on the right side. Shaneah Jenkins, the sister of Shayanna who dated Lloyd at the time of the killing, sat with Ward.
Hernandez was expressionless when he entered the courtroom.
The Massachusetts case has taken on renewed attention because the Patriots are playing the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl and because owner Bob Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick are on the prosecution’s witness list.
Days after Lloyd’s slaying on June 17, 2013, Hernandez went to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro and had conversations with Kraft and Belichick about Lloyd’s death, according to a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation.
Both meetings were face to face, and Kraft later told investigators that Hernandez said he had nothing to do with Lloyd’s death, the source told CNN.
According to Belichick, the same was true, and the head coach told authorities he spoke with Hernandez about his whereabouts the night of Lloyd’s death, the source added. The day Hernandez was arrested, Belichick told reporters at a press conference he was shocked.
Since the former tight end was arrested and charged in Lloyd’s death, the prosecution’s case has changed significantly, seemingly in Hernandez’s favor, as the judge has barred prosecutors from using certain evidence, legal analysts said.
For example, Judge Susan Garsh barred a text message from Lloyd to his sister sent minutes before he was killed. The message stated that he was with “Nfl,” adding, “just so u know.”
The judge ruled the message wasn’t enough proof that Lloyd thought he was going to die.
The defense argued the messages are innocuous, suggesting Lloyd could have been bragging about being with Hernandez.
The judge has also blocked any mention that Hernandez has been indicted in connection with two other killings in Boston. Hernandez pleaded not guilty in the shooting deaths of Ernesto Abreu and Safiro Furtado outside a bar in Boston in 2012, and a trial date hasn’t yet been set in that case.
The judge has also barred one prosecution witness, former Hernandez friend Alexander Bradley, from stating he is suing Hernandez for allegedly shooting him in the right eye a few months before Lloyd’s death. That shooting is inadmissible, the judge ruled.
“The universe of damning evidence has shrunk,” said legal analyst Michael McCann, founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
Also, the murder weapon has not been found.
“There is no murder weapon or a witness that credibly would testify that Aaron Hernandez did it. There is no such witness,” McCann said. “It just isn’t the slam-dunk case that it seemed to be.”
What’s left for prosecutors
But prosecutors have a lot of strong circumstantial evidence, legal analysts said.
Also, prosecutors plan to argue Lloyd’s killing was a “joint venture.” Under Massachusetts state law, prosecutors don’t necessarily have to prove who pulled the trigger.
Under joint venture, “anyone who actively participates in the murder can be held guilty for murder,” McCann said.
“If the jury believes that Aaron Hernandez was with Odin Lloyd right before he was killed, it’s not a big leap to conclude that Aaron Hernandez was involved in the murder of Odin Lloyd,” McCann added.
Days after Lloyd’s killing, Hernandez left a crush of media camped outside his home and drove to Gillette Stadium to meet with the Patriots owner and head coach.
At the time, police sources were looking at Hernandez as someone who might have information about the killing after police found keys to a car rented by Hernandez on the body of Lloyd. His bullet-riddled remains were found at an industrial park in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, about a mile from the popular football player’s home.
Lloyd was dating Shaneah Jenkins, the link between the young man who dreamed of the NFL and the pro player acquaintance who was scaling the league’s summits.
She is the younger sister of Shayanna Jenkins, who is engaged to Hernandez and the mother of his little girl. Two years ago, Hernandez was one of the NFL’s most promising tight ends, signing a $40-million contract extension with the Patriots.
Lloyd’s last day
On June 16, 2013, Lloyd was riding with friends in a black Chevrolet Suburban, which police later learned was rented by Hernandez.
Close friend Daryl Hodge was with Lloyd when he said Lloyd got a text from Hernandez, asking to hang out later that night.
As they parted ways, Lloyd told Hodge he’d see him later.
The next day, Lloyd’s body was found.
Prosecutors say Lloyd was last seen with Hernandez and Hernandez’s two associates, Ortiz and Wallace, around 2:30 a.m. in a rented silver Nissan Altima.
Surveillance video from security cameras at an industrial park showed an Altima heading toward a secluded area at 3:22 a.m.
At the same time, Lloyd’s phone sent the text messages to his sister.
Between 3:23 and 3:27 a.m., nearby workers reported hearing gunshots. At 3:29, a camera showed an Altima pulling into Hernandez’s driveway, about a half a mile from the death scene.
Three people got out of the car, and Lloyd was not one of them.
Nine days later, Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and other weapon-related charges.