Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez went on trial Friday for the June 2013 murder of a semi-pro football player, a case that exposed the rich young star’s drift into violence and stoked a widening debate about off-the-field behavior of NFL athletes.
Hernandez, 25, is charged with killing Odin Lloyd, a friend whose body was found in an industrial park in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, shot several times and discarded near a mound of construction waste. The case against Hernandez is largely circumstantial, and if he’s convicted he faces life without parole.
But the Lloyd murder is just the start of the former tight end’s legal troubles. He is also charged in a drive-by shooting that killed two men outside a Boston nightclub. Those 2012 murders might have gone unsolved if not for evidence uncovered in the Lloyd case, including testimony from a former associate who is suing Hernandez for shooting him in a separate attack.
Whether or not he’s convicted, the Lloyd case already serves as a coda to a brief but brilliant career that began in Bristol, Connecticut, where Hernandez was a revered three-sport standout who thrived under the strict oversight of his father, a legendary local athlete who pushed his two sons — the other, D.J. Hernandez, was a football star who now coaches at the University of Iowa — to excel in both sports and school. Aaron Hernandez broke all kinds of state football records, and made the honor roll. But when he was 16, his father died from complications after routine surgery, and by many accounts that was the point where the younger Hernandez's personal life took a turn that would sharply diverge from his football career.
On the gridiron, Hernandez continued to excel. He was named the state’s top football player in 2007 and left Bristol Central High School early to attend the University of Florida. But off the field, he began associating with shady characters, including the two men who would end up being his alleged accomplices in Lloyd’s murder, those who knew him then have said.
Hernandez found trouble in Gainesville, too. He was charged with punching a waiter and was linked to a shooting outside a nightclub, cases that attracted little public interest until the Lloyd murder. He was suspended one game for testing positive for marijuana. But he also won the John Mackey Award as the top tight end in college football and made first-team All-America his junior year. He left for the 2010 NFL draft, where several teams passed on him out of concerns about his behavior. The Patriots ended up selecting him in the fourth round.
He performed well as a rookie, and in his second year he made the Pro Bowl. A $40 million contract extension followed, then a massive new home in North Attleboro, where he lived with his high school sweetheart, Shayanna Jenkins. They had a daughter. He proclaimed he was a changed man.
But Hernandez still hung out with old Bristol friends. They became fixtures at nightclubs. There was more trouble, including the 2012 drive-by shooting in Boston in which he would later be charged. A Bristol friend who was allegedly with Hernandez that night, Alexander Bradley, now says Hernandez shot him in the eye outside a Florida strip club in February 2013.
Neither the 2012 drive-by nor the claimed February 2013 shootings will come up at the Lloyd trial, after a judge ruled those allegations inadmissible. Another blow to the prosecution came a year ago, when it dropped its star witness, Carlos Ortiz, one of Hernandez’s two alleged accomplices in the Lloyd killing, because he kept changing his story.
That leaves a largely circumstantial case against Hernandez. His lawyers say none of it amounts to guilt. They’re likely to shift the blame to Ortiz and the third alleged accomplice, Ernest Wallace, who face separate trials.
Prosecutors contend that Hernandez killed Lloyd in a fit of rage that began with a dispute at a Boston nightclub, in which the NFL star thought his friend had disrespected him. Lloyd, 27, who hung out with Hernandez and was dating Jenkins’ sister, was last seen with Hernandez, Ortiz and Wallace in a rented Nissan Altima, the same model caught on security cameras near the industrial park, prosecutors say. Around that time, Lloyd sent text messages to his sister saying he was with "Nfl," adding later, "just so you know." (Those texts were also ruled inadmissible at trial). An Altima was later captured on video arriving at Hernandez's home, less than a mile from the spot where Lloyd’s body was found. Prosecutors also say that Hernandez had guns removed from his house after the killing and arranged a rental car for his two alleged accomplices to return to Connecticut.
Hernandez was arrested at his home on June 26, 2013, nine days after Lloyd’s murder. The Patriots immediately cut him.
The Lloyd trial, to be held in Fall River, Massachusetts, is expected to last at least six weeks, with more than a week of jury selection alone. One of those days will likely be spent at Hernandez’s home, where jurors will walk past a trophy case attesting to a promising career now dead.