Aaron Hernandez Trial, Part 1: The Opening Statements
January 30, 2015
Good afternoon. I’m Boston criminal defense attorney Ben Urbelis, and I am going to be doing a video blog, providing updates on the Aaron Hernandez first-degree murder trial that’s currently underway. I’ve already received a lot of questions from people about different aspects of the trial that just started yesterday, so I’m here to break it down and simplify it as much as possible and also provide my own take on what I’ve seen.
Yesterday, both sides provided opening statements. Opening statements are not evidence, and the judge explained that to the jury. Opening statements are a chance for each side to provide a roadmap and lay out what their theory of the case is and what they expect the evidence to show. In all criminal cases the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is on the prosecution, and since they have the burden, the prosecution is required to provide an opening statement first.
The opening statement for the prosecution was provided by Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Patrick Bomberg. He started out by painting a picture of Odin Lloyd as a hard-working family man from Boston. This is nothing unique – the prosecution, of course, wants the jury to feel as much sympathy for the victim and his family as possible. What I was looking for from the beginning, however, was a theme or theory of the case. Not only did I not see that at the beginning of the prosecution’s opening, but I didn’t see it anywhere in their entire opening statement. ADA Bomberg went from talking about Odin Lloyd as a person, to jumping into text messages between Odin and Aaron Hernandez, to talking about the other people who were allegedly present at the crime scene on the night in question, to getting straight into all of the facts that the prosecution intended to prove, along with the evidence they would intend to show the jury in the form of forensics, cell phone records, video surveillance, receipts, GPS tracking of the defendants vehicle, etc.
It was clear that ADA Bomberg had a strong grasp on all of the evidence that he would intend to show the jury during the course of the trial, down to the very last minute. He had a very strong command of the defendant’s every move both before he allegedly committed the murder and after he allegedly covered it up. Based upon the prosecutors opening statement, we can expect this trial to be filled with significant, detailed circumstantial evidence.
Now I’ve heard people say that the evidence is so strong, therefore it’s direct evidence. The strongest evidence is not necessarily direct evidence. Let me give you an example. One morning you’re lying in bed and your six-year-old daughter runs up the stairs and hands you the newspaper and says ‘mommy or daddy here’s the paper that I know you want to read, the paper boy just came to the door and handed me this newspaper to give to you.’ Your daughter’s statement that the paperboy handed her that newspaper is direct evidence that the paperboy delivered a newspaper. She saw him, he handed her the paper, she brought it to you and told you that’s what happened. Now let’s say you walk downstairs in the morning, go to the front door, walk out go to your mailbox, and there’s a newspaper there in the mailbox waiting for you. That is circumstantial evidence that the paperboy delivered the paper to your house. It’s not direct evidence because no one specifically saw or heard the paperboy come and deliver the paper. But based upon the fact that you know your paper boy delivers the paper every morning before you get up, and when you went out this particular morning there was a paper in the mailbox, you can come to the reasonable conclusion, based upon the circumstantial evidence, that the paperboy delivered your newspaper that morning.
Now even with the strongest circumstantial evidence, to me, the prosecution failed to tell the jury a strong, compelling story. ADA Bomberg went on for too long, getting into too much detail without addressing the elephant in the room: the lingering question, “why?” In a first-degree murder trial, to have a really strong case, the jury will need an answer to that question. The “why” question is called motive.
“Motive, means, and opportunity” is a phrase that we often hear in a case like this. The prosecutor did a good job setting out the means by which Aaron Hernandez could have committed this crime. They will show evidence that he purchased a gun. There’s even some video evidence of him possibly holding the gun alleged to have been used to kill Odin Lloyd on the night in question. The prosecutor laid out the defendant’s opportunity to commit this crime; he said that there would be evidence of text messages between the defendant and the victim throughout the course of the night, they had been seen together by many people throughout the course of the night, there was a video of the defendant picking up the victim, and, according to the prosecution’s timeline, it all syncs with the defendant having had the opportunity to commit the crime.
Without a motive, however, a really big piece was lacking in this opening statement. The prosecutor also didn’t look as confident as the defense attorney Michael Fee did during his opening. ADA Bomberg’s body language suggested someone who was uncomfortable. On more than one occasion, he could be seen folding his arms or putting his hands in his pockets, when doing so at those particular points was not conducive to a convincing argument.
From the onset of attorney Michael Fee’s opening statement for the defense, he looked much more cool, calm, collected and confident than the prosecutor did. His theory of the case was clear from his very first sentence: Aaron Hernandez was targeted from the beginning as soon as the police found out that the victim was friends with him, a famous NFL football player. He hinted that the police would do anything to prevent Hernandez from getting off and becoming the sequel to the OJ Simpson debacle. Attorney Fee purported that the police had tunnel vision in their investigation, ignoring other leads and just doing really sloppy police work.
Attorney Fee reiterated several times that the prosecution lacked a motive to prove their case, asking the jurors rhetorically, “why would Hernandez do this?” Playing to the jurors sense of fan loyalty and pride, he said, “Mr. Hernandez had helped lead his team, our hometown New England Patriots, to the Super Bowl in 2011, leading him to sign a major NFL contract extension through 2018; he had a seven-month-old baby; he was living with his baby’s mother together in their beautiful home that he purchased the previous year, and he had his whole life ahead of him. He was planning a future, not a murder.”
That was a tagline that particularly stuck with me during the defense attorney’s opening statement. I thought that Attorney Fee did a good job of explaining Hernandez’s lifestyle, and not trying to sugarcoat him as an angel. He painted his client as someone who would regularly smoke weed, drink, listen to hip-hop, use offensive language, and go to nightclubs with his friends looking to hook up with girls before he actually tied the knot with his girlfriend. Attorney Fee did that because that story explained why Hernandez was really picking up Odin Lloyd at 2:30 in the morning when there were no bars or clubs still open in Massachusetts. They had been at an after party together the night before, and on the night in question they were doing the same thing – trying to find an after party to hook up with girls.
Attorney Fee suggested that the prosecution would try to only show one side of the story to get the jury to believe what it wanted them to, without trying to show the full story, or the truth. He demonstrated this by holding out his grandfather’s pocket watch, from five to seven feet away, and said to the jury, “this is my grandfather’s pocket watch- but even though you see it, I haven’t really showed it to you. Now I’m showing it to you- my grandfathers initials engraved in the back, the way that it sounds when you wind it, etc.” He wanted to harp on reasonable doubt and to not convict his client just based off the face of a watch held from a distance. Demand more from the prosecution to get the full story; that’s always part of how defense attorneys present our cases to a jury. I really liked Attorney Fee’s comparison and how he ended his closing argument on that strong note.
Overall, I thought that the prosecutions failure to suggest any motive was the biggest thing to take from the opening statements. Now people might say, “we’ve heard on the news that the motive was to keep Odin Lloyd quiet about the other murders Hernandez committed.” Well, that’s not going to come up in this case. If the prosecutor had that evidence available, it would have been the centerpiece of his opening statement. So it won’t be considered by the jury, and it’s not part of the case at all.
After the opening statements, only two witnesses testified yesterday, and I’m already getting questions about why they were questioned for so long. I’ll touch on that briefly in my next video blog, so stay tuned.
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