New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has finally been arrested in front of his home this morning. No formal charges have been announced however word has been the last few days that Hernandez destroyed evidence in connection with the murder of Odin Lloyd, whom Hernandez was seen with before Lloyd was murdered. A number of media outlets have had legal experts break down the possible charges and defense for Hernandez but the fast paced question and answer style can be difficult to follow so here is a quick summary of what Hernandez may face.
An example of how the rapid-fire Q&A format to decipher legal information can be confusing is when ESPN’s Roger Cossack stated, “”There’s a federal statute in every state that you cannot knowingly destroy evidence”. Cossack is an experienced attorney and legal analyst and it’s likely he misspoke, but there is no such thing as a federal statute in every state. There are federal statutes that cover crimes against the federal government or interstate crimes and there are state statutes that cover crimes committed within each state. Hernandez’s possible obstruction of justice charge is a state crime and therefore would be governed by Massachusetts law.
First taking a look at the case law in Massachusetts, the most relevant case that appears to still be good law in Massachusetts is Commonwealth v. Triplett, 426 Mass. 26. In the decision, the Court states that “in order to convict the defendant of common law obstruction of justice, the Commonwealth had the burden to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly interfered with the testimony of a witness in a judicial proceeding.” The key words here are “in a judicial proceeding”, because Hernandez has not been part of a judicial proceeding thus far, he cannot be charged with obstruction of justice based solely on common law.
The next step would be to look for a state statute in Massachusetts for obstruction of justice. I could not find a specific statute for obstruction of justice for destroying evidence. Therefore the charge will likely not be for obstruction of justice. A few charges that may be brought against Hernandez include accessory before the fact and accessory after the fact. If Hernandez is charged with being an accessory before the fact, the state is essentially saying Hernandez aided in the murder of Lloyd prior to the actual murder. This crime can be punishable in Massachusetts “in the manner provided for the punishment of the principal felon” according to the statute. This means Hernandez’s penalty could be the same as whoever actually murdered Lloyd. The state may charge him with being an accessory before the fact but would have to prove that Hernandez participated in some way more than just being around when the crime was committed.
According to the Massachusetts state statute, an accessory after the fact is someone who, “after the commission of a felony, harbors, conceals, maintains or assists the principal felon or accessory before the fact, or gives such offender any other aid, knowing that he has committed a felony or has been accessory thereto before the fact, with intent that he shall avoid or escape detention, arrest, trial or punishment, shall be an accessory after the fact”. It seems more likely the state would be successful in charging Hernandez with being an accessory after the fact in light of the facts that Hernandez destroyed his security system and had the house scrubbed down. If they haven’t already, the police will likely interview the cleaners Hernandez hired and be able to use their testimony as evidence against him. This charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
It’s likely that even if Hernandez is convicted of these crimes that he will receive a lighter sentence since he is a first time offender. In addition, Hernandez’s attorneys will likely raise issues as to the credibility of statements from witnesses and look for holes in the timeline of events provided by police.
Massachusetts State Police tweeted that charges will not be formally announced until Hernandez is arraigned later today.