(CN) – A Massachusetts judge agreed Tuesday to erase the murder conviction of Aaron Hernandez after the former New England Patriots star killed himself in prison last month.
Hernandez, 27, was serving a life sentence for the death of Odin Lloyd when he used a bedsheet to hang himself in his cell before dawn on April 19, 2017.
Attorneys for the athlete brought a motion days later in Bristol County Superior Court to vacate Hernandez’s conviction under an arcane process known as abatement ab initio.
Judge E. Susan Garsh, the same woman who presided over Hernandez’s 2015 trial, granted the motion from the bench Tuesday after a roughly 90-minute hearing.
Refusing to speculate about what motivated Hernandez to kill himself, Garsh said the process is clear: if a defendant dies while his conviction is still under review, the conviction judgment must be vacated.
“Abatement is the law in this commonwealth, and this court is required to follow that precedent,” Garsh said.
Lloyd’s former girlfriend, Shaneah Jenkins, darted out of court crying once the hearing concluded.
Jenkins is the sister of Hernandez’s former fiancee, Shayanna, with whom the football star had a child. Though they never married, Shayanna took Hernandez’s last name during the Lloyd murder trial.
Prosecutors vowed to fight Garsh’s ruling, which the judge formalized Tuesday afternoon in an 11-page opinion, saying Hernandez’s intent gives them a strong basis to appeal.
Speculation has swirled since Hernandez’s death that he planned to have his conviction abated because it could force the Patriots to fulfill certain terms of his contract. In addition to a $3.5 million bonus that was put on hold after his 2013 arrest, the Patriots may owe Hernandez an additional $2.5 million in guaranteed base salary.
Prosecutors believe that Hernandez made reference to these millions in his handwritten suicide note, an excerpt of which appeared in a report filed last week with the court.
“You’re rich,” Hernandez wrote, underlining the words at the end of instructions for his fiancee to take care of his affairs.
“I love you,” Hernandez wrote. “Let [redacted] know how much I love her! Look after [redacted] and [redacted] for me – these are my boys.”
Addressing reporters after the hearing, Bristol District Attorney Tom Quinn noted that he wants to be sensitive to defendants’ rights, but “this goes a little too far.”
“I’m startled to say the least,” Quinn said.
It “defies common sense,” Quinn added, for “an archaic rule to erase the verdict of a jury.”
Insisting that “Hernandez died a guilty man,” Quinn called on the commonwealth to do away with the abatement doctrine.
“The defendant should not be allowed to accomplish in death what he was not able to accomplish in life,” Quinn said, repeating an argument Assistant District Attorney Patrick Bomberg had made in court.
Ursula Ward, the mother of the man Hernandez had been convicted of killing, issued a tearful statement outside the court as well.
Wearing a picture of Lloyd’s face pinned to her bright coral top, Ward softly spoke of her faith in God.
“I know everyone is looking for me to be angry but I’m not,” Ward said.
“With God on my side all things are possible, so I’m not giving up,” she added.
Days before he killed himself, Hernandez was acquitted of murdering Daniel De Abreu and Safiro Furtado in a 2012 drive-by shooting.
Hernandez still faced a civil suit from those men’s families, but his mood had changed after his April acquittal, according to the May 5 filing by prosecutors, which cites interviews of Hernandez’s fellow inmates conducted by prison guards.
The inmates described Hernandez as having become spiritual in prison, and one said Hernandez had asked him if there was any truth to the “rumor” he heard about the abatement process in Massachusetts.
Though partially redacted, the report makes no mention of a rumor that Hernandez had a boyfriend in prison. It does mention that, after Hernandez’s death, some inmates listened to a radio broadcast they described as having been disrespectful toward Hernandez. That broadcast “had brought up the fact that Hernandez may be gay,” the inmates said, according to the report.
Hernandez’s suicide note included various religious imagery, and state police said Hernandez used several references to a Bible verse in killing himself.
The words “John 3:16” were scrawled in ink on Hernandez’s forehead and in blood on a cell wall. A Bible in Hernandez’s cell was open to John 3:16, with a drop of blood marking the verse.
The verse says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Lloyd’s mother Ward described a budding settlement in an April 27 motion to substitute Hernandez’s fiancee as defendant.
Signed by Kelsey Raycroft with Sheff Law Offices in Boston, the filing describes efforts to sell Hernandez’s former home at 22 Ronald C. Myer Drive in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.
“The property continues to lose value and become further encumbered by federal and municipal liens,” the Ward motion states. “The house is currently uninsured and this asset is in danger of being lost if it is not sold.”
In response to a public records request from The Associated Press, Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. released a report last week that says Hernandez belonged to the Bloods street gang.
In prison, Hernandez was disciplined for having paraphernalia with the letters STG, short for the gang euphemism Security Threat Group.
Jose Baez, the defense attorney who won Hernandez’s acquittal in April, said Hernandez’s family plans to have the former tight end’s brain tested at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.
The center studies a progressive degenerative brain disease found in some athletes who have experienced repetitive brain trauma.