A judge has thrown out the 2013 murder conviction of ex-NFL star Aaron Hernandez because he died before his appear could be heard.
The former New England Patriots tight end hanged himself in his prison cell on April 19 while serving a life sentence in the killing of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. His suicide came just five days after he was acquitted in a separate double slaying in 2012.
Hernandez's appellate attorneys made their request under a long-standing legal principle in Massachusetts holding that when defendants die before their appeal is decided, their convictions should be vacated.
"Abatement has been practiced in federal and state courts for more than a century," Judge E. Susan Garsh said in her ruling Tuesday. She said there is no proof that Hernandez killed himself knowing that it could lead to his conviction being tossed.
"This court cannot know why Aaron Hernandez chose to end his life... a tragic act that may have complex and myriad causes," she said.
Garsh's ruling came following a 40-minute hearing on Tuesday morning in Bristol County Superior Court.
Hernandez's appellate lawyers said his conviction in the Lloyd case was not considered final because the automatic appeal he was entitled to had not been heard at the time of his death.
"This is an established common law doctrine," appellate attorney John Thompson argued. "It involves just two questions - is there a pending direct appeal and has the appellant died during the course of the pending direct appeal? Both of those facts are undisputed here."
Prosecutors, however, argued that dismissing Hernandez's murder conviction would reward his "conscious, deliberate and voluntary" act of taking his own life. They said a defendant's death while an appeal is pending does not always require what is known as "abatement," including when "a defendant's death is a result of his own conscious, deliberate and voluntary act."
"It was a purposeful act. It's a conscious and voluntary act," said Bristol County Assistant District Attorney Patrick Bomberg. "There is a reason, a motive for the defendant to have done it. That, I'm suggested, separates this case.
"The defendant should not be able to accomplish in death what he could not accomplish in life," he added.
Ursula Ward, Lloyd's mother, and Shaneah Jenkins, Lloyd's girlfriend, were among those in the courtroom Tuesday. Jenkins broke into tears as Garsh announced her ruling.
In a motion filed before Tuesday's hearing, Thompson said documents including the state's death certificate and excerpts from a suicide note Hernandez wrote to his fiancee should be disregarded because they are irrelevant to the proceedings.
That motion was denied by the judge on Tuesday morning.