(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.