The Curious Case of Aaron Hernandez

NFL

Aaron Hernandez was found hanged in his prison cell early in the morning on April 19, 2017. He had just been acquitted of murder in the deaths of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado in 2012.

He was still serving his life sentence for the murder of Odin Lloyd which allegedly occurred in 2013.

However, Aaron Hernandez will not be forever officially known to be a convicted murderer. Although Hernandez was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the first degree murder of Odin Lloyd, Hernandez was continuing to serve time while his case was appealed.

One strong policy of our criminal justice system is the right to an adequate appeal. A part of that right is that the presumption of innocence re-establishes itself upon the appeal, even though successful appeal of criminal convictions is exceedingly rare. What this means is that Aaron Hernandez should have his conviction overturned and vacated.

The following comes from U.S. v. Sheehan 741 F. Supp. 31 (D. Mass 1994)

“The death of a defendant pending his appeal has consistently been held to abate the prosecution ab initio.”

Judge Woodlock continues:

“As a consequence, the appellate courts customarily order, as did the First Circuit here, that the judgment appealed from be vacated and the indictment be dismissed. The unexecuted elements of the sentence are thus abated because there is no legal basis upon which they may be enforced.”

Essentially, what he’s saying is that without an Aaron Hernandez to convict (or in that particular case, Daniel Sheehan) there can’t be a conviction. Any continuing punishment would be an unjust punishment of his family or estate.

However, it doesn’t end there. The Sheehan case also cemented a curious rule which required that a deceased convict’s estate to be reimbursed for the fines that Sheehan had paid in connection with his conviction for public corruption.

“I further find that the logic of vacating the judgment requires the estate of the defendant to be put — to the extent possible — in the position it was in before judgment entered. Accordingly, I will direct the Clerk to return the monies to the defendant’s estate.”

There is a pragmatic logic behind Woodlock’s findings here. He muses the possibility that a convicted person may be aware of the rule previously described in U.S. v. Schumann 861 F. 2d 1234 (11th Cir. 1988) (holding that “because Schumann paid his fine before his demise, the penalty operated as a punishment to him rather than to his estate”) which abates any outstanding fines but does not return already paid fines and simply refuse to pay until their appeal is finished, or simply “run out the clock” if they are of old age.

“The courts, however, ought not to proliferate distinctions which might encourage defendants to avoid making prompt — if legally provisional — payments of the financial obligations in criminal judgments they seek to overturn.” Id. 

This logically follows his previous finding that without a defendant to punish, no punishment should be pressed. Although the return of monies to the estate certainly does feel like it goes further than one might expect. Nevertheless, if Aaron Hernandez had been fined as part of his conviction (I do not know if he was, and a fine would scarcely be reported alongside life without parole by any publication, it simply doesn’t sell) those monies would be returned to his estate in short order.

When one remembers the photos of Hernandez’s crying daughter in the courthouse a few short days ago, it certainly makes one wonder if Hernandez was aware of the curious case of Daniel Sheehan.

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