Convicted murderers do not do end zone dances, so Aaron Hernandez merely nodded and cried as the jury foreperson declared him not guilty of killing two strangers, Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, in 2012 like he later killed his friend Odin Lloyd in 2013. Soon enough, Hernandez was led out of the Boston courtroom by a battery of armed officers and transported back to a prison sentence covering the rest of his life.
A dozen of Hernandez's peers had decided the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had not made its case against the former New England Patriots tight end, and shortly after the verdict was announced, Hernandez's lead attorney, Jose Baez, told ESPN.com he wished the disgraced NFL star had hired him for the Lloyd trial. In lobbying for a signature role in the appeal of the Lloyd conviction, Baez said if Hernandez "wants to hire me for that one, I'd be honored to represent him."
As a football player, Hernandez caught a couple of breaks in the form of Urban Meyer, among the finest college coaches of his generation, and Bill Belichick, arguably the finest NFL coach of any generation. They both knew how to develop Hernandez, how to maximize his staggering athletic skills, and in turn Hernandez helped Meyer's Florida Gators win a BCS title game and helped Belichick's Patriots advance to a Super Bowl. Perhaps Meyer and Belichick reminisced a bit on the day before the Good Friday verdict, when the Patriots coach spoke at his good friend's clinic at Ohio State, Meyer's current school.
As a defendant, Hernandez caught another break in the form of Baez, whose Twitter account and website bill him in big, capital letters as "One of the greatest trial lawyers of all time," a quote attributed to Geraldo Rivera. Baez had built his reputation around the 2011 acquittal of Casey Anthony, who had been charged with the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, and yet he said by phone he regarded the Hernandez case as the tougher one to win.
"I never represented somebody who was already convicted of murder, facing a double-murder charge," Baez said. "And everybody knew [Hernandez] was convicted of murder. Every member who sat on that jury knew of the Odin Lloyd case. ... We were so far behind coming out of the gate, I wasn't sure we'd be able to make up for that."
Baez denied that the spectacle of a sensational trial tethered to a sports dynasty inspired him to represent Hernandez, and he rattled off a series of murder cases he had handled that involved relatively anonymous defendants. But much like Meyer and Belichick before him, Baez overlooked Hernandez's considerable flaws because he saw potential. He saw star power.
More than anything, he saw victory.
The scene inside Courtroom 906
It's the strangest thing sitting inside a murder trial and observing how the defense and prosecution interact around the accused. Over a couple of days in late March inside Boston's Suffolk Superior Court, Patrick Haggan, first assistant district attorney, talked with the attorneys sitting on either side of Hernandez, Baez and Linda Kenney Baden, sometimes even sharing a laugh with them, as if they were all part of the same team pursuing the same goal. But Haggan never included Hernandez in the conversation. Never so much as glanced at him as he was bantering with the man to Hernandez's immediate right and then with the woman to his immediate left. The prosecutor did not want a defendant he saw as a triple murderer thinking he was something in this courtroom that he was not. Haggan did not want the former tight end to think he was even a small part of this team.
Unshackled but escorted by burly department of corrections officers, Hernandez would walk into Courtroom 906 wearing a jacket and tie. He would bro-hug his waiting attorneys with great enthusiasm. The ex-Patriot would chat easily with the people hired to defend him, as if he were making plans to meet them for dinner later around Quincy Market. He seemed to enjoy his temporary freedom, his time in a businessman's clothes making average, everyday conversation. His demeanor suggested that a courtroom beats a prison cell eight days a week.
Hernandez looked a lot bigger than his listed 6-foot-1, 245 pounds as he stood and towered over the lesser legal specimens around him when Judge Jeffrey Locke and the jury entered. During testimony, sometimes Hernandez wrapped his right arm around the edge of his chair, craned his head toward Haggan and shot the prosecutor an incredulous look as he fired questions at a witness. Sometimes Hernandez surveyed his fingernails after he nibbled on them. Sometimes he turned around to check the clock on the back wall or to steal a glance at his relentlessly loyal fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, looking right past the victims' family members seated in the benches designated for relatives and supporters of both sides.
"When I saw some of the s--- he was able to get away with [at Florida], we weren't taking him. He actually thought he was going to get away with murder. He always thought he could beat the system, and when he got arrested I thought, 'Well, the system finally caught up with him.'"An NFL executive on Aaron Hernandez's past
De Abreu's father, Ernesto, wore headphones for a translation of the testimony. A private forensics analyst named Michael Haag took the stand and detailed the journey of the five bullets Hernandez stood accused of firing into the victims' BMW from a .38-caliber gun. Haag described how the bullets tore through the victims' bodies, and how one lodged in Furtado's brain, and he did so without any emotion, as if he were giving a clinical breakdown of a malfunctioning desktop.
Haag explained how the images of the recovered bullets -- displayed on a screen right in front of Hernandez -- provided valuable insight into the men's deaths; the specific damage to each projectile, the exposed lead, told a story of where that projectile had been and whether it had struck bone or tissue or both. The top of the bullet that entered the right side of Furtado's temple and stopped in a tangle of soft tissue, for instance, looked like the darkened head of a mushroom.
As Haag spoke, Hernandez reached for a small bottle of hand sanitizer, pressed the dispenser and rubbed some into his hands. The prosecution would display outlined sketches of the victims' bodies and their entrance and exit wounds, compelling de Abreu's widow to leave the courtroom. Ernesto Abreu leaned forward for a closer look at the diagram of the bullet holes in his son that were being circled on the screen.
Normally during testimony two officers were seated directly behind Hernandez, both appearing big enough to tackle the defendant with or without helmets and pads. Before one courtroom session, Hernandez thanked an officer for passing him a box of tissues. When Hernandez suddenly rose from his chair to throw a used tissue into the trash can near the main door, the sight of this hulking convicted murderer walking a mere eight feet, unencumbered, seemed to briefly startle those who were watching him.
One day Baez ripped into Judge Locke with a vengeance for rebuking him in front of the jury, following up an earlier verbal assault on Locke from Baez's teammate, Ronald Sullivan, a Harvard law professor. Pointing to his 27-year-old client, Baez told Locke he couldn't accept the judge's disrespect, "especially not when this man's life is on the line." It seemed Baez was playing the role of a high-profile head coach working over a referee, trying to get a call later in the game. Sure enough, after summoning the jury back into his courtroom, Locke told the seven women and five men that they shouldn't confuse his admonishment of anyone as a performance review, and that he thought the defense, along with the prosecution, was doing a masterful job.
At the end of a day's work, the jurors walked single file past the prosecution and defense tables, and appeared to avoid eye contact with Hernandez. The defendant then embraced his attorneys and said his temporary goodbyes. He had one officer in front of him and another behind him as he was escorted out of the courtroom and through a nearby door on his way back to hell.
'Living on the edge of acceptable behavior'
During the trial, Tom Brady played Augusta National with Jordan Spieth, Rob Gronkowski appeared at WrestleMania 33, Belichick attended the pro day at Florida, Hernandez's old school, and the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots wouldn't draft Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was caught on video punching a woman in the face. Mixon was not going to get the benefit of the doubt in 2017 that Aaron Hernandez got in 2010.
"There was so much dirt on Aaron Hernandez [at Florida]," said one widely respected scout, "it seemed you could dig up as much as you wanted. You could dig up enough to take him off your draft board, or you could stop at a certain point because you wanted to keep him alive on your draft board."
The Patriots kept Hernandez alive on their board because they loved what they saw in a private workout at Florida attended by Belichick and Tim Tebow, among others. It wasn't just the tight end's size, speed, athleticism and soft hands; Hernandez showed an impressive football IQ in a classroom setting, too. Belichick hadn't won a Super Bowl in the five seasons following his third championship in 2004 -- an eternity for him -- and he thought Hernandez might be the kind of difference-maker who could win him ring No. 4.
Meyer raved about Hernandez's work ethic and passion for the game. But sources said he did warn the Patriots coach about Hernandez's character issues; he warned every NFL rep who asked, even though Meyer had suspended the player only one game for reportedly failing multiple drug tests, and hadn't suspended him for a 2007 assault on a bar employee that left the man with a ruptured eardrum. Hernandez had also refused to cooperate with police investigating a 2007 shooting that left two men wounded, including one who was shot in the back of the head, and he was known to run with an unsavory crowd. The Wall Street Journal reported that a psychological profile, prepared by North Carolina scouting service Human Resource Tactics before the 2010 draft, said Hernandez was "living on the edge of acceptable behavior" and "doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team."
Hernandez was a first- or second-round talent who slipped to the fourth round after numerous front offices removed him from their boards. Knowing his team-centric culture had survived and thrived after acquiring other players weighed down by varying amounts of baggage, Belichick acted on what appeared to be favorable risk-reward odds. He drafted Hernandez with the 113th overall pick even though he'd taken a tight end, Arizona's Gronkowski, with the 42nd.
"It seemed to us that [Hernandez] loved football," said one Patriots source. "Bill's had a lot of success with guys who have had problems elsewhere, so we thought Aaron could be successful with us. Usually if a guy has problems and he loves football, you can still work with him because he doesn't want football to be taken away from him and be left with nothing."
Said a second organizational source: "There was nothing extraordinary, or out of the norm, with Hernandez. Everything we'd been through with him [in the pre-draft evaluation] we'd experienced before ... with different people."
Floyd Reese, former Tennessee Titans general manager and a Patriots senior adviser at the time, said the team's decision-makers "had done our homework, and we were aware of some of the issues with Aaron Hernandez." Reese, who was involved in contract negotiations, said New England structured Hernandez's first deal in a way to "make him understand he was going to get every cent that he was due at the draft slot ... but he was going to have to earn it. It was not going to come all at once just because you were picked in the fourth round. ... He had to stay on the straight and narrow. In the contract he was going to be penalized for issues with drugs or being late or any of the things you look for."
At 20, Hernandez was the NFL's youngest player in 2010. Didn't matter. He was precisely the versatile weapon Belichick thought he would be over his first two seasons, when he accounted for 124 receptions and 13 touchdowns. The tight end was good for 61 yards rushing -- yes, rushing -- in a January 2012 playoff rout of the Broncos, and he caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants. Hernandez had combined with Gronkowski to form a devastating one-two that created matchups out of a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. "Hernandez revolutionized their offense," said one rival personnel man. "They had the no-huddle concept that destroyed everybody. You could never line up in the right defense."
It seemed Hernandez's role was expanding by the week. "Every time we had him do something," Reese told ESPN.com, "it was shocking how well he did it. Near the end of his career we were playing him as a running back, and we would turn around and give him the ball and it was shocking how well he ran it. He could do anything you wanted him to do. ... Each time we used him, we expected to see him fail at something. ... And I'm not sure we ever found that."
One general manager who thought Hernandez was too big of a character risk to consider drafting admitted he had second thoughts after watching him perform for the Patriots, and after hearing he was, for the most part, staying out of trouble. "We were like, 'Wow, I guess we blew that one,'" the GM said. "'All those concerns were for naught.'"
In the summer of 2012, the Patriots rewarded Hernandez with a new $40 million contract that included a $12.5 million signing bonus. The tight end was so thrilled, he gave team owner Robert Kraft a $50,000 donation to a fund named in honor of the owner's late wife.
Of his own apparent transformation, Hernandez said, "You can't come here and act reckless and do your own stuff. ... When I came here, I might have acted the way I wanted to act. You get changed by Bill Belichick's way. You get changed by the Patriot Way."
Hernandez said those words on Aug. 27, 2012, 42 days after the two Cape Verdean immigrants, de Abreu and Furtado, were gunned down near the nightclub where prosecutors alleged de Abreu had accidentally spilled a drink on the tight end. Hernandez was 22 years old, a blossoming NFL star and, according to sources, starting to seriously concern Belichick. Patriots coaches and officials were worried about the people Hernandez was associating with, a number of them from his hometown of Bristol, Connecticut, only a two-hour drive from Gillette Stadium.
"That element of his life kept creeping back in," said one team source. "Everyone was aware of it. It was definitely a concern in the building."
"When you think back on it," said a second Patriots source, "part of the reason he went to Florida was to kinda get away. Him going to Foxborough was maybe not an ideal location for him. ... He would've been better off in Seattle."
At 16, Hernandez had been devastated by the 2006 death of his 49-year-old father, a revered former high school sports star in Bristol. Dennis Hernandez died from complications following hernia surgery. Those close to Aaron Hernandez reportedly thought that his home life began to unravel as a result of the tragedy -- his mother, Terri, remarried to an ex-con who ultimately stabbed her in a domestic dispute -- and that he found comfort inside a dysfunctional neighborhood unit of small-time criminals and drug dealers.
But over time, Hernandez was said to have feared the violent alternate reality he'd created for himself outside the Patriots' facility. Rolling Stone reported that Hernandez flew to the 2013 pre-draft combine in Indianapolis to tell Belichick he felt his life was in danger, that he was "trying to break away from the gangsters he'd befriended," and that he began arming himself for a possible showdown with those gangsters. The magazine also reported Belichick threatened to get rid of Hernandez following the 2013 season after he'd missed workouts and rehab sessions and was involved in a domestic incident with his fiancée, and that the coach advised him to rent a "safe house" to lower the volume on his life.
Belichick never got a chance to act after the 2013 season, if only because there wouldn't be a 2013 season for Hernandez. He was arrested on June 26 of that year for the murder of Lloyd, a semi-pro linebacker who had been dating the sister of Hernandez's fiancée. Lloyd's bullet-ridden body was found in an industrial park about a mile from Hernandez's North Attleborough, Massachusetts, mansion. Hernandez was all but dragged out of his home by cops who had him handcuffed behind his back. The accused was wearing red gym shorts and a plain white T-shirt, its empty sleeves dangling in the early summer breeze.
"Aaron was one of the most loved guys in that organization. He was definitely one of my favorite guys on the team, too, and I know it sounds weird saying it. He was a real football player, this kid. He was into being great."Chris Simms, former NFL QB and former Patriots coaching assistant
The morning before he was arrested, Hernandez had texted Chris Simms, a Patriots coaching assistant, former NFL quarterback and the son of a Belichick favorite from his Giants days, Phil Simms. Hernandez asked Chris Simms to help him get in touch with Greg Roskopf, a trainer and muscle specialist who had worked with the likes of Peyton Manning. "I woke up the next day," Simms told ESPN.com, "and there was a warrant out for his arrest. I did not believe it at first. I was like, 'Man, I know he didn't pull the trigger.' ... I kept trying to tell myself all these things."
Why? Why would Chris Simms or others in the Patriots organization try to talk them themselves out of the possibility that Aaron Hernandez could execute a helpless man in a gravel pit?
"Aaron was one of the most loved guys in that organization," Simms said. "He was definitely one of my favorite guys on the team, too, and I know it sounds weird saying it. He was a real football player, this kid. He was into being great. He worked in the offseason when nobody was there. When nobody was looking, he was still going to get his work in. We lose the AFC Championship Game, and three days later Aaron is in there watching film and working out.
"The coaches loved Aaron Hernandez. That's not to say anything bad about the coaches; Aaron was very charismatic. You could cut up with him in the locker room, and he could talk crap to you and you'd both laugh. He was extremely talented, he was 245 pounds and he was quicker than [Julian] Edelman and [Wes] Welker. He could've been an all-time great."
Hernandez had sworn to Kraft that he was innocent of killing Lloyd, who had apparently angered him by talking to people in a club who might've been at odds with the tight end. Kraft and his player had a brief meeting -- before the arrest -- in a strength coach's office that ended with the player hugging and kissing the owner and thanking him for his concern. But Kraft's later testimony that Hernandez told him "he hoped the time of the [murder] came out because he was in a club" damaged the defendant -- Hernandez would've had no way of knowing the time of the crime if he weren't present when it was committed.
"If this stuff is true," Kraft would later say, "I've been duped, and our whole organization has been duped."
Some teammates were among those fooled. Donté Stallworth, a former NFL wide receiver, said he saw in Hernandez in 2012 nothing but a hard-working teammate with otherworldly talent. "To me," Stallworth told ESPN.com, "he was on his way to being in the Hall of Fame. I've never seen someone so enthusiastic about practice and training. Who's enthusiastic about training? Nobody, but he was. He was one of the first to show up and the last to leave. When all that went down, I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' He was so much all about football."
Of course, a football player's work ethic and enthusiasm inside his team's facility don't always define a man's character, or lack thereof. Others inside and outside the organization saw the dark side in plain view. One NFL executive said he wasn't surprised in the least when Hernandez's life went up in flames. "When I saw some of the s--- he was able to get away with [at Florida], we weren't taking him," the executive said. "He actually thought he was going to get away with murder. He always thought he could beat the system, and when he got arrested I thought, 'Well, the system finally caught up with him.'"
One Patriots starter during Hernandez's time in New England called him "the most different guy I've ever been around. One day he's super cool and normal, and the next day he's acting like a thug, a gangster. He's got headphones on, and he doesn't talk to anybody, and he wants to sit at his locker and ignore the world."
A prominent agent who did not represent Hernandez said he initially thought Belichick was a genius for drafting such a dynamic player in the fourth round. That agent wasn't alone. But after his tight end was arrested, Belichick struck a somber tone in a news conference as he spoke of the hundreds of good citizens he'd brought into his program, and of his need to continue improving the way he gathers intel on prospective Patriots.
"Nobody knows better than you guys," Belichick told reporters, "that all sources are not equal."
The Patriots fired Hernandez 90 minutes after he was arrested. They allowed their fans to trade in their No. 81 jerseys, and they scrubbed Hernandez's biographical information from their website. To date, the 2010, 2011 and 2012 rosters on Patriots.com include no link to Hernandez's background and stats, just a gray shadow of a man's head and shoulders beside Hernandez's name, height, weight, college and years in the league.
In an interview with CNBC's Suzy Welch last week, when playing a word association game, Belichick was asked to react to the name Aaron Hernandez.
"Tragedy," Belichick answered.
"Heartbreaking," Welch said.
"Yes," the coach responded. "That would be another word."
The next chapter
In something of a surprise, the Florida Gators website still provides links to Hernandez's bio and a nugget that the player is "well known for his numerous tattoos, each of which have a special meaning and tell his 'life story.'" Prosecutors in the Furtado/de Abreu trial tried and failed to convince jurors that a tattoo Hernandez got in 2013 of a six-chamber gun loaded with five bullets (the commonwealth believed five shots were fired in the murders) next to the words "God Forgives" was tantamount to an admission of guilt. Hernandez also got a tattoo on his hand that read CBS/WBS IWBTG, which signified the words "Can't be stopped/Won't be stopped, I will be the greatest."
Meyer was the first big-time coach to give him a shot at greatness, and after guiding Hernandez through Bible study sessions at Florida, inviting him into his family's home and making Tebow his de facto campus guardian, Meyer chafed at the notion he didn't do enough to control his player. An Ohio State spokesman declined an interview request for Meyer on the subject of what he did and didn't do for Hernandez. The tight end's offensive coordinator and position coach at Florida, Dan Mullen and John Hevesy, were also deemed unavailable by a spokesman at their current school, Mississippi State. Hevesy's online bio explains that in 2007 he "tutored future NFL tight end Cornelius Ingram," and makes no mention of the fact that in 2007 and 2008 he tutored a much better future NFL tight end.
Nobody wants to take credit for Aaron Hernandez anymore. Nobody even wants to talk about him.
Nobody except Jose Baez. When he agreed to handle the de Abreu/Furtado trial, Baez told Hernandez, "If you lose this case, the appeal [of the Lloyd conviction] becomes irrelevant."
Prosecutors wanted the jury to believe Hernandez killed de Abreu and Furtado in a drive-by and then later tried to kill a witness to the crime, Alexander Bradley, a friend who supplied the tight end with drugs, by shooting him between the eyes and dumping him in an alley. Bradley was the prosecution's immunized star witness; he was also the man, according to the defense, who murdered de Abreu and Furtado in a drug deal gone bad. As a dealer, a felon and a man who shot up a Hartford club in an unrelated crime in 2014, Bradley was a neon advertisement for reasonable doubt. The state simply couldn't overcome him.
The jury deliberated for six days before deciding the state failed to prove the convicted murderer actually killed three men and tried to kill a fourth. Hernandez was found not guilty on seven of eight charges; he was sentenced to four to five years for unlawful possession of a gun. The victims' family members in the first two rows of benches wept and consoled each other. Some left the courtroom before a second reading of the verdict was complete.
Baez missed the big day with a back injury; his phone blew up with congratulatory calls and texts after the verdict came in. The district attorney and the police commissioner maintained afterward that Hernandez had murdered the two men, a claim the lead defense attorney called absurd. Baez said the prosecution was merely out to "get an NFL football player" when it targeted Hernandez. The attorney said he knew he was connecting with the jury throughout the trial, and that his "biggest shock was how long it took" for the acquittals to come in.
Now Baez wants in on the appeal hearing in the Lloyd case. "I think there are plenty of flaws in that conviction," he said. "If they are exposed properly, [Hernandez] certainly can and should get a new trial." Baez described his client as "one step closer to being reunited with his family."
The appeal of the Lloyd conviction would be a tougher case to win than the de Abreu/Furtado and Casey Anthony cases. It might be almost as tough as the O.J. Simpson case that Johnnie Cochran won in 1995.
Is it a 25-1 chance to actually reverse the conviction and make Hernandez a free man? A hundred to one? A million to one?
"I'm not Vegas," Baez said. "I don't give odds."
This much is certain: Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick gambled on the tight end and lost. Is it possible that Jose Baez will be the first all-time great to win with Aaron Hernandez and walk away unscathed?