The chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association tells the Boston Globe that Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction over the 2013 shooting death of Odin Lloyd will be voided after the former New England Patriots star was found dead in his prison cell early Wednesday morning.
Hernandez was in the process of appealing his conviction at the time of his death. Because of a long-standing legal principle called “abatement ab initio” — meaning “from the beginning” — a person’s case reverts to its status at the beginning if they die before their legal appeals are exhausted.
“Its effect is to stop all proceedings ab initio (from the beginning) and render the defendant as if he or she had never been charged,” Timothy A. Razel wrote in a 2007 Fordham Law Review article about the principle.
Said Martin W. Healy of the Massachusetts Bar Association: “Unfortunately, in the Odin Lloyd matter, for the family, there won’t be any real closure. Aaron Hernandez will go to his death an innocent man.”
As Razel notes, the principle of “abatement ab initio” was most famously used during the Enron case earlier this century. Kenneth Lay, the former president of the energy company, was found guilty of 10 federal fraud-related charges in 2006 following a scheme in which the company conspired to hide its losses from its stockholders, who lost hundreds of millions of dollars when the company went bankrupt. Lay was expected to be forced to provide restitution to the stockholders when he was sentenced in October 2006, but he died of a heart attack three months before his sentencing. Over protests from federal attorneys, the judge in the case erased Lay’s conviction, citing federal court precedent.
Some federal circuit courts have challenged the abatement principle, ruling that while convictions may be erased, restitution may not because the purpose of restitution is to provide relief to crime victims, not to punish guilty criminals. But others have found that you cannot void one and not the other.
The Supreme Court has not ruled definitively either way, allowing lower courts to decide the matter.
Massachusetts law follows the latter principle, based on past rulings by the state Supreme Court. As examples, the Globe notes the case of John C. Salvi, who in 1994 was convicted of killing two women at separate Massachusetts abortion clinics. Salvi killed himself in prison before his appeals were exhausted, and his convictions were overturned by a Massachusetts judge after an appeal. The same happened to John Geoghan, the Catholic priest who in 2002 was convicted of molesting children but was killed in his Massachusetts prison cell by another inmate in 2003 (it was at the same prison where Hernandez was found dead). His conviction was erased.
“I think that the technical quirk in the law only serves to re-victimize the victims,” Robert Sherman, a lawyer who also represents clergy abuse victims, told the Boston Globe in 2003. “The satisfaction they received in knowing their complaints were vindicated by a jury now gets nullified by a technicality, and that does no justice to anybody.”