By Eric Levenson
Bristol County prosecutors officially asked to reinstate Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction on Friday, arguing in court documents that the former NFL player’s suicide should not lead to dismissal of the guilty verdict.
The appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts specifically targets the “abatement” rule, which holds that murder convictions are tossed out if a defendant dies before his appeal has been heard by a court.
“This is an archaic rule not based on the Constitution, and it should be changed. A defendant who commits suicide should not be able to manipulate the outcome of his post-conviction proceedings to achieve in death what he would not be able to achieve in life,” District Attorney Thomas Quinn said in a statement.
Hernandez was convicted of murder for the June 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd, who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but he had appealed the decision.
But before that appeal could be heard, the former Pro Bowl tight end hanged himself in his prison cell on April 19, just days after he was acquitted of double-murder charges in a separate case.
Massachusetts courts have recognized the legal rule called “abatement ab initio.” The idea of the “quirky” rule, which is based in common law, is that the right to appeal is vital for defendants, according to Suffolk University law professor Rosanna Cavallaro.
Quinn argued in court in May that the rule has no solid historical or legal basis. Prosecutors also argued that Hernandez committed suicide to better protect his family from lawsuits.
However, Judge Susan Garsh ruled in May to vacate the murder conviction. She ruled that the court could not know the exact reason for Hernandez’s suicide, “a tragic act that may have complex and myriad causes,” she wrote.
According to the appeal, her order “rewards the defendant’s deliberate act in taking his own life as a means of obtaining legal advantages.” The judge’s decision also “encourages other criminal defendants to elect suicide as a means of avoiding criminal responsibility and potentially conferring financial and other benefits on third parties.”
The issue is relevant because Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, has brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Hernandez’s estate, and civil lawsuits often rely on criminal convictions as their basis of facts.
In a news conference in May, Ward said the judge’s decision didn’t change her mind.
“In our book, he’s guilty, and he’s going to always be guilty,” she said, holding back tears. “But I know one day, I’m going to see my son. And that’s the victory that I have (that) I’m going to take with me.”
Abatement has been recognized in other high-profile Massachusetts cases, including in cases of suicide.
For example, John Salvi was convicted of murder in 1996 for opening fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, but his conviction was vacated when he committed suicide before his appeal was heard.
CNN’s Lawrence Crook III and Evan Simko-Bednarski contributed to this report.