Judge E. Susan Garsh said a legal doctrine that calls for vacating convictions when a defendant dies before an appeal can be heard was binding precedent. She said she was compelled to follow it.
FALL RIVER, Mass. — A judge on Tuesday erased a 2013 murder conviction against former NFL star Aaron Hernandez, ruling that case law in Massachusetts had long established that defendants who die before their appeals are heard could have their convictions vacated.
Judge E. Susan Garsh said she was compelled to follow precedent in ordering that Hernandez's first-degree murder conviction be vacated in the death of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd. Hernandez killed himself last month in prison while serving a life sentence.
Lloyd's mother fought back tears at a news conference after Tuesday's hearing, saying the former New England Patriots tight end would always be guilty in the eyes of her family.
"In our book, he's guilty, and he's always going to be guilty," Ursula Ward said.
Lawyers for Hernandez had argued that the state's highest court had applied the legal doctrine "without exception," even in cases of suicide. They said his conviction wasn't considered final because the automatic appeal he was entitled to had not been heard at the time of his death.
Prosecutor Patrick Bomberg had argued that Hernandez "should not be able to accomplish in death what he could not accomplish in life."
But Garsh rejected the argument that Hernandez had forfeited his right to appeal by taking his own life, saying no one can ever know for sure why Hernandez killed himself.
Ward has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Hernandez, and her lawyer has said he doesn't believe the civil case would be undermined if Hernandez's conviction was vacated.
Hernandez's appellate attorney, John Thompson, told reporters after Tuesday's hearing that he believes it's still uncertain as to whether Hernandez took his own life.
Thompson says he has recent correspondence from Hernandez in which he was interested in pursuing an appeal of his conviction. Thompson also said because Hernandez died in prison, it will be difficult to definitively determine how he died.
Hernandez's lead attorney in his recent double murder trial, Jose Baez, has pledged to do an independent investigation into his death.
State police said in an investigative report that Hernandez was found naked on April 19 and hanging from a bed sheet tied around the window bars of his cell. Correction officers found that cardboard had been shoved into the tracks of Hernandez's cell door to prevent the door from opening. Hernandez also had put shampoo on the floor to make it slippery, the report states.
An autopsy performed by the state medical examiner's office determined the cause of Hernandez's death was asphyxia by hanging and the manner of death was suicide.
His death came five days after he was acquitted in a 2012 double murder.
Hernandez, who grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, and played football at the University of Florida, was considered an up-and-coming star during his three seasons with the Patriots. He was cut from the team hours after his arrest in the killing of Lloyd.
Prosecutors say they will appeal the ruling.