Relentless in their gathering and presentation of evidence, painstaking in their attention to every circumstantial detail at the murder scene, and persuasive in their use of ballistics, forensics and surveillance videos, the prosecutors in the Aaron Hernandez murder trial emerged Wednesday with an enormous and well-deserved endorsement.
It is a victory many did not expect. Without a murder weapon and with no real evidence of a motive, lead prosecutor William McCauley faced serious challenges. But with 132 witnesses, thousands of pages of cellphone records, a footprint, a tire track and compelling video from a 14-camera security system in the Hernandez home, McCauley won a conviction with largely circumstantial evidence and a compelling final argument.
It is a conviction that will withstand any attempt by Hernandez and his lawyers to reverse it on appeal. To achieve success on an appeal, Hernandez must show that Bristol County Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh is guilty of "reversible error," a mistake so egregious that she deprived Hernandez of a fair trial. Garsh, in her rulings before and during the trial, favored Hernandez, depriving the prosecution of dramatic evidence. Any error she might have made hurt the prosecution more than it hurt Hernandez.
McCauley early in the trial addressed the most serious gap in his evidence by producing shell casings from the murder scene and bullets removed from victim Odin Lloyd to demonstrate to the jury that there was no doubt that a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic was the murder weapon.
In a highly imaginative maneuver, McCauley used a Glock sales executive with impressive mastery of ballistics to show the jury a prototype of the weapon. Again and again, McCauley had the witness describe the characteristics of the weapon and then had him walk in front of the jury box, allowing the jurors to see the dark and formidable handgun only a few feet from their seats.
After firmly establishing the look and the shape of the weapon for the jurors, McCauley showed videos from the Hernandez security system that showed Hernandez in his mansion with a dark object in his hand two hours before the murder and 10 minutes after it. Still photos that the prosecution team made from the video demonstrated clearly that the dark object was a Glock .45-caliber semi-automatic.
One of Hernandez's lawyers was forced to admit later in the trial that the object in the photos "could be a weapon."
In his final effort on the murder weapon, McCauley brought in a highly reluctant witness, Shayanna Jenkins, Hernandez's fiancée and the mother of their 2-year-old daughter. It was a risky move, but it worked. Again relying on security videos, McCauley showed that Jenkins had removed a large box from the house only a few hours after the murder after receiving a coded text from Hernandez. In highly suspicious testimony that the jury clearly rejected, Jenkins denied that any gun was in the box and claimed that she could not remember the location of the dumpster where she disposed of it.
Clinching the case on the gun, McCauley, in his final argument to the jury, asked how the gun could have been present in the house and in Hernandez's hand 10 minutes after the killing and not found in the house in two police searches done within days of the murder.
McCauley was less successful on establishing a motive for the killing of Lloyd, but he did stitch together bits and pieces of evidence from a nightclub in Boston, an encounter that Lloyd and Hernandez had with the nanny who cared for Hernandez's daughter, and evidence that Hernandez had become angry with Lloyd during their time at the club.
Lloyd knew too much about Hernandez, McCauley argued. He knew about Hernandez's extensive marijuana use, his hitting on the nanny, and his secret apartment in Franklin, Massachusetts.
Another major factor in the conviction was the prosecution team's use of cellphone records that forced the Hernandez lawyers to make an admission they did not want to make. In hours and hours of testimony from representatives of various phone companies, prosecutors were able to show that Hernandez and two friends, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, traveled from Hernandez's house in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, to Boston to pick up Lloyd and then back down to the industrial park where the murder occurred. The records, including calls, texts and streaming data connections, established his location and route and made it impossible for Hernandez to deny that he was at the scene.
In his final argument to the jury, Hernandez attorney James Sultan admitted that Hernandez was in the industrial park but was shocked and surprised when he saw the shooting.
McCauley was ready for Sultan's admission. If Hernandez was shocked and surprised, McCauley asked the jury, why was he sitting around the pool at his home a few hours after the murder (shown in surveillance videos) with Ortiz and Wallace, one of whom had to be the killer, drinking smoothies and playing with his daughter?
In addition to the gun evidence and the incriminating cellphone records, the prosecutors used a footprint at the scene to connect Hernandez to it. The police managed to preserve the shoe impression in the face of a thunderstorm that erupted shortly after the discovery of Lloyd's body. McCauley used a Nike executive to begin to show that the print came from a brand-new pair of Jordan Retro 11s that Hernandez was wearing on the night of the killing.
Surveillance videos showed Hernandez in the shoes, and then a police forensics expert demonstrated to the jury how the print matched a prototype of the shoes by placing a photo of print at the scene over a photo of the sole of the distinctive shoe. The shoe print evidence worked well because the shoes were new and a left a dramatic print that a worn shoe would not have made.
In a maneuver that shows the remarkably detailed police investigation after the murder, the prosecution presented photos of a walk-in closet in the Hernandez house with the Jordan Retro 11s clearly present on a shelf. After the police analyzed the shoe print and returned to the house to look for the shoes, the shoes were gone from the closet and could not be found anywhere in the house, another highly suspicious disappearance.
Any doubt that any juror may have had about Hernandez's role in the killing may have been resolved by the prosecution's evidence of Hernandez's character. McCauley managed to show that Hernandez was the kind of guy who was perpetually smoking marijuana, that the three men with him on the night of the killing had all supplied him with dope, that he was stingy enough to leave only a 10 percent tip at a restaurant hours before the killing, that he blew through a tollbooth on the night of the murder to avoid a charge of $1.50, that he hit on the nanny who cared for his daughter, that he told a woman at the nightclub in Boston that she was lucky he was talking to her, and that he used his secret apartment to cheat on his fiancée.
In his most impressive bit of rhetorical dexterity, McCauley, in his final argument, used the ballistic and forensic evidence he had presented to show shot by shot how Lloyd was murdered. Hernandez fired the first shot from the driver's seat, McCauley explained. It hit Lloyd in the back seat on the passenger side and left a shell casing on the floor of the rented car.
Using the trail of shell casings in the dirt at the scene and the fingerprints of both Ortiz and Wallace found on the back door near Lloyd, McCauley then described the next five shots, including two fired point-blank as Lloyd lay dying in the dirt.
The conviction was the result of an extensive and detailed police investigation and a masterly performance by McCauley and his team. Every lead was followed. Every bit of evidence was properly preserved for presentation at the trial. Every witness was presented to the jury. And everything worked.
What's next for Hernandez? A likely futile appeal, a trial in Boston on a double murder, and the possibility that he may be forced to testify in the trial of Ortiz and Wallace for their roles in the Lloyd murder. And then there is the sentence imposed Wednesday immediately after the verdict -- life without parole.