Originally Published: March 10, 2014

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 17 Conspiracy Issue. Subscribe today!

WHEN THE PROSECUTION charged Aaron Hernandez with murder in June, Bristol County (Mass.) Assistant DA William McCauley proclaimed, with the bravado of a man having no doubt he could leave a jury doubtless: "The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming."

When you think about it, McCauley's statement wasn't all that different from Hernandez's makin'-it-rain touchdown celebration in the NFL. He was declaring, in no uncertain terms, "We got this." And across the country, the always-captive celebrity murder trial audience is still nodding their heads.

But eight months after the arrest of Hernandez, legal experts tell The Mag that the former Patriots tight end could very well walk rather than be convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd. This is how a conspiracy of silence, a vanished gun and an unclear motive have complicated a seemingly open-and-shut case.

Zipped lips
Because of self-interest, loyalty or fear of retribution, members of Hernandez's inner circle have, at best, invoked their collective right to remain silent. At worst, they have conspired with each other to keep the details of Lloyd's homicide under wraps.

The only person willing to flip on Hernandez? Carlos Ortiz. A small-time crook with a history of PCP abuse, Ortiz was far from an ideal eyewitness, but for a while, he spun a credible tale. Hard evidence shows that on June 16, he and Ernest Wallace, another of Hernandez's pals from his hometown of Bristol, Conn., were summoned by Hernandez to his North Attleborough, Mass., home. From there, the three men picked up Lloyd in Boston and drove to an industrial park less than a mile from Hernandez's pad. But this is where the hard trail ends.

Ortiz initially said he awoke from a nap in the backseat when Hernandez, Wallace and Lloyd exited the car. After a series of gunshots rang out, Wallace and Hernandez got back into the car without Lloyd and sped off into the night. Ortiz's story allegedly remained consistent over his first half-dozen interviews with police, but he changed his tune in the fall and said Wallace never exited the car at the industrial park, directly implicating Hernandez. In January prosecutors, who'd first shrugged off Ortiz's revised testimony, admitted the obvious: Ortiz was "completely unreliable" and wouldn't be called to the stand.

A missing piece
Despite a multistate search that included a literal fishing expedition in a Bristol pond, investigators still haven't found what could be the most damning piece of evidence against Hernandez -- the murder weapon. Without that, the only leg the prosecution's case stands on is a mound of circumstantial evidence.

Much of it seems solid, says Gerry Leone, a former district attorney of Middlesex County (Mass.) who convicted the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid. There's the home security tape that appears to show Hernandez holding a .45-caliber Glock -- the gun investigators believe was used to kill Lloyd -- hours before and minutes after the shooting. There's also surveillance footage that tracks Hernandez's movements that night, from the time the three men picked up Lloyd in Boston until just after they entered the industrial park. And police traced the car the men were driving, a silver Nissan Altima, back to a rental agency where they recovered a shell casing that matched the ones found near Lloyd's body.

While these bread crumbs make for a nice trail of evidence, they hardly comprise a slam dunk case. As Leone points out: "I don't know if it's enough to find him guilty of first-degree murder. The defense could argue, Yeah, he was at the scene of the crime, and he knew someone had a gun. But he didn't know anyone would be killed. And you have no evidence to show that he did."

Nobody knows why
With no eyewitnesses and no gun, convincing a jury of Hernandez's motive might be the only way to win a conviction. "If it's all circumstantial that he was involved in the murder, then a jury will want a motive," says Chris Dearborn, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston. "The act is too random and vicious without a reason."

The theory being floated by investigators is that Lloyd was killed because he knew about Hernandez's role in a 2012 double homicide outside a Boston club called Cure Lounge. Some background: On July 16, 2012, Hernandez and a convicted drug dealer named Alexander Bradley were at Cure. So too was a separate group that included two men from the African islands of Cape Verde. Later outside the club, they were all in a BMW stopped at a traffic light when a gray Toyota 4Runner pulled up beside them. Someone inside the SUV opened fire, killing the two Cape Verdeans, Daniel Abreu, 29, and Safiro Furtado, 28. Surveillance footage has since surfaced showing Hernandez and Bradley getting into the 4Runner before the shooting occurred, and police discovered what they believe to be the same SUV a year later, covered in cobwebs, at the Bristol home of Hernandez's uncle, Andres "Tito" Valderrama.

A grand jury has been investigating Hernandez's potential involvement in the crime, but to introduce the double shooting at the Lloyd trial, Dearborn says, "you would need an eyewitness who could literally say that [Hernandez] had a gun in his hand and I saw him pull the trigger." Given that the grand jury seems no closer to handing down an indictment, chances are such witnesses haven't materialized. And even if they do, prosecutors would still have to prove that Lloyd's knowledge of the double homicide is what precipitated his execution.

Judgment calls
As it stands now, the holes in the prosecution's case are so plentiful that, according to Dearborn, Hernandez's star-studded legal team could opt not to call a single witness during the trial. The goal? To simply let the circumstantial evidence create the doubt needed for an acquittal. "We don't have a confession, we don't have an eyewitness and we don't have a murder weapon," says Dearborn. "You're talking about sending someone to prison for the rest of his life, and you're being told he killed somebody, but we have no idea why."

Given everything working in Hernandez's favor, his legal team won't be inclined to consider any sort of plea deal either. "The defense has plenty to work with," says Leone. "It's a triable case." So this will end in one of three ways: The prosecution wins a first-degree murder conviction and Hernandez spends the rest of his life in prison; a jury convicts Hernandez on a lesser charge, like accessory to murder or manslaughter; or Hernandez is acquitted and freed.

With every passing day -- with each non-cooperative witness, each failed gun search, each faulty motive -- the evidence of Hernandez's guilt becomes less "overwhelming," and those second and third outcomes become more likely. It will take more than bravado to bring down Aaron Hernandez.

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