In place of an obituary for Aaron Hernandez there is only an unexplainable blank followed by a question mark. After all of the lethal contradictions of his life, did this kiss-blowing killer, so promisingly great but with such dead-end eyes, resolve matters with the ultimate act of squandering and hang himself in the desolate shade of a jail cell? And if so, then so what?
He was found not guilty (though not entirely) of a double murder Friday. He was dead, apparently by his own hand with a bedsheet, by Wednesday. He was not on a suicide watch and his famed attorney, Jose Baez, had just given him slight hope that another murder conviction for which he was serving a life sentence might be overturned on appeal. If he did kill himself at age 27, you can only suppose that he was left too alone in his cell with the consciousness of his crimes. In addition to destroying others, “All crimes, of course, are offenses against oneself,” W.H. Auden wrote.
What is knowable about Hernandez is that he led a forked life; the star NFL tight end was accompanied on the path of success by a brutal lowlife stranger who foiled his potential. He trained hard to become an all-American at Florida and succeeded brilliantly with the New England Patriots, and he had the green shoots of a good life, with a fiancee and a daughter. Yet he was linked to various incidents of gun play and violence that left three men dead and others maimed. He posed for a selfie with a Glock, and inked guns on his body along with the other tattoos that crawled toward his sullen jaw. He huffed chemical substances by the pound and consorted by choice with bullet-strafed dealers. He was 6 feet 1 and 245 pounds of rock-solid muscle yet eggshell ego. You got the impression that for all of his physical strength, there was something unstarched in him, soft. Pliable.
You also got the impression of a man run amok, a person no one ever found a way to check. As a 16-year-old he experienced the tragedy and shock of losing his father, Dennis, a custodian, to an infection after hernia surgery. Yet that hardly can explain his chronic attraction to violent trouble, or the blankness he radiated, the palpable lack of remorse and the sense of a central file missing. Only rampant narcissism, years of fourth and fifth chances, being let off the hook, and perhaps whiffing angel dust, can do that.
In even a single murder, the victims are multiple. Not one but at least two whole families die, that of the victim, and that of the perpetrator, and in Hernandez’s case the damage to mothers, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters was exponential. Yet Hernandez never appeared to feel sorry for anybody — except, if he did commit suicide, for himself. Despite his own paternal history he showed no outward recognition of the families of two hard working immigrant office cleaners who were murdered, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, in a 2012 drive-by shooting, allegedly over a spilled drink in a nightclub. Hernandez may not have fired the shots; the jury found reasonable doubt because it was possible his thuglife associate in the car with him, Alexander Bradley, could have been the triggerman. Bradley himself is a convicted drug and gun dealer who shot up a nightclub on another occasion. But if nothing else, Hernandez gave cover to a double murder.
The rest, everything after 2012, was more unfathomable stupidity, ratcheted up by suspicion and revenge motives. Bradley wound up shot in the face and dumped in an alley, supposedly by Hernandez, and turned state witness against him, while also admitting he wanted to kill him in turn.
What’s knowable about Hernandez is that he carried these events lightly in public and had a talent for dual posturing and posing. He played the grateful guy who had been set straight by the Patriots, winning a contract extension worth $40 million just six weeks after he was present for the nightclub murders. “I just hope I keep going, doing the right things, making the right decisions so I can have a good life, and be there to live a good life with my family,” he said.
In private he got so stoned and drunk he had to get in shape for training camp by wearing a sweatsuit in a sauna. He went on debauches to strip clubs, dropping $10,000 at a time. In addition to the mansion he shared with his fiancee and stocked with criminal parasites, he kept a secret apartment or flop house.
Less than a year after Hernandez signed his contract extension, he apparently murdered semipro football player Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old friend who had rolled his joints for him, in a fit of paranoia. Physical evidence including a shell case and a wad of gum connected him to the industrial park pit where Lloyd’s body was found shot multiple times, including in the back.
Baez, his attorney, asserted there were good grounds for appeal in that case. After being acquitted last week in the double murder, Hernandez wept, and nodded, and apparently expressed optimism about getting out of prison. There were reports that he was trying to do what some people with life sentences do, find some purpose or quality of life inside; he had become a copious reader, learned to play chess. On Wednesday, Baez issued a statement demanding an investigation, positing that it could have been a jailhouse murder. Will we ever know?
What’s knowable is that Hernandez was no innocent bystander in his own death: either he did it to himself or someone was so appalled at the idea of him winning an appeal and evading a life sentence that they did it to him. But what’s unknowable is whether Hernandez might ever have escaped his whole rotten nihilistic, meaningless pattern of living. Time after time his past fouled his more promising future. When he took the lower fork, was that a willful and avoidable choice? Or was he so flawed and reflexive in his actions that he was always doomed?
If there is anything interesting about Hernandez, it’s this question. The stupendous size of the waste seems important — the unbelievable amount of destruction and self-destruction he wrought, despite every opportunity. Was his defect such that no amount of help or incentive, no well-intentioned scripture spouting from Urban Meyer, his coach at Florida, or demandingness and contract-dangling from Patriots Coach Bill Belichick could get him right? Was it worth the risk to try to help him, to make a better man out of him by offering him the NFL dream? You would like to say yes, that all men are potentially redeemable, and teachable, that no one’s heart is learning-averse and everyone’s potential is open-ended. But then you survey the entirety of Hernandez’s brief bloodstained career, and the squandering of lives all around him, and you say: I just don’t know.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins