Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has been charged with first-degree murder and a series of gun violations. The investigation that led to the murder charge and the charge itself raise questions about the evidence against Hernandez, the handgun used in the killing, the possible roles of Hernandez acquaintances and the incarceration of Hernandez without bail:
Q: Why did authorities charge Hernandez with first-degree murder and not with any lesser offense such as second-degree murder or manslaughter?
A: The police and the Bristol County district attorney are convinced they have evidence that Hernandez was angry with the victim, Odin Lloyd; that Hernandez deliberately sought him out; and that Hernandez took Lloyd to what Hernandez thought was a secluded area and shot him at least five times. When prosecutor William McCauley used the phrase "execution style" in his courtroom presentation, it was a clear signal he thought the killing was planned and deliberate. If it was planned and deliberate, it is first-degree murder, a charge that in Massachusetts can lead to a sentence of life without parole. There was nothing accidental or even reckless in the prosecutor's scenario of what happened, nothing that would justify a lesser charge.
Q: How strong is the evidence against Hernandez?
A: The police and prosecutors have assembled an impressive, minute-by-minute chronology of what they think led up to the shooting. They will be able to show that Hernandez was with Lloyd in a rental car, that they made at least one stop as they drove around together and that Hernandez was pulling into his driveway at home two minutes after witnesses heard a series of shots in the industrial park where Lloyd's body was discovered. The detail, confirmed by receipts and text messages and phone calls, will be persuasive evidence in a trial.
But prosecutors might not have the weapon used in the killing. Authorities searched a stream and a lagoon near Hernandez's house but apparently found nothing. And prosecutors might not have an eyewitness who was present when the shots were fired. If the prosecutors later produce the gun and acquaintances of the two men who were with them in the hours and minutes before the shooting, the prosecution's case could become overwhelming. The authorities were not obligated to disclose all their evidence in the hearing Wednesday. If they were holding back on the gun and on cooperating witnesses, Hernandez will face a virtually insurmountable challenge.
Q: There has been a lot of talk about obstruction of justice: Hernandez allegedly destroying his cellphone, destroying his home video surveillance system and cleaning out his house. What happened to all of that?
A: Despite the reports, investigators were able to pull evidence from Hernandez's cellphone and from his surveillance system. The description of the evidence included numerous items that were taken from the supposedly destroyed cellphone and surveillance system. Even though the technology was destroyed, it appears investigators were able to extract important information from the pieces and fragments that were left. The focus is now clearly on the murder charge and not on the possible obstruction charge.
Q: Why didn't the judge allow Hernandez to be freed on bail?
A: There is no doubt Hernandez would be unsuccessful in any attempt to flee. The coverage of the investigation has made him suddenly one of the most recognizable athletes in the world. He has a fiancée and an infant daughter. If he were released on bond, it is certain he would be back in court for each required appearance. But the serious nature of the charge was enough for the judge to refuse to grant a bond. Hernandez's attorney has vowed to appeal the decision on the bond, but it is unlikely he will be able to persuade a higher court to set a bond.
Q: Why did authorities go to Hernandez's house and drag him out in handcuffs when he would have turned himself in voluntarily?
A: In notorious cases with extensive media coverage, many U.S. prosecutors insist on what has become known as a "perp walk." Even though Hernandez and his attorney had assured the prosecutors they would show up in court after a simple phone call, the police sent four squad cars to arrest Hernandez on Wednesday morning and brought him out the front door in a T-shirt.
This kind of arrest is a chance for the elected district attorney of Bristol County, C. Samuel Sutter, to enjoy some publicity. There is little doubt Sutter harbors political ambitions. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives last year in a Democratic primary. He might see the Hernandez case as a ticket to higher office. Another factor in the arrest might have been an attempt by authorities to show they were not happy with Hernandez's alleged attempt to destroy evidence. This perp walk was probably the result of both factors.
Q: When will we know more details of the killing?
A: Judge Daniel J. O'Shea, at the request of prosecutors and of Hernandez's legal team, issued a gag order that prevents any discussion of case details. It might be that the Hernandez appeal of the no-bail decision will provide some additional details as the prosecution argues that Hernandez belongs in jail until trial. But unless a news organization challenges the gag order, additional details might not emerge until trial.
Q: What is the likely outcome of this prosecution?
A: The case against Hernandez is strong and probably will grow stronger. Even without the weapon, the prosecution has powerful evidence. If a detailed review of the evidence against Hernandez shows him to face terrible odds in a trial, Hernandez and his attorneys could seek a plea bargain, a settlement that will allow Hernandez to serve a lengthy term in the penitentiary but still have some life left upon his release.