(Reuters) – Massachusetts’ top court on Wednesday reinstated former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez’s conviction on charges of murdering an acquaintance in 2013, making it easier for the victim’s family to sue his estate.
Hernandez hung himself in his prison cell in 2017, days after being cleared of a separate 2012 double murder, leading a lower-court judge to toss his conviction under a longstanding state legal doctrine that vacated guilty sentences for people who died before they had exhausted the appeals process.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court scrapped that legal doctrine, saying that it was not in keeping with norms of “contemporary life.”
“When a defendant dies irrespective of cause, while a direct appeal as of right challenging his conviction is pending, the proper course is to dismiss the appeal as moot,” the court said.
Hernandez was convicted in 2015 of murdering acquaintance Odin Lloyd in an industrial park near his home by the Patriots’ stadium and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. In 2017, he was cleared in a separate case of murdering two Cape Verdean men outside a Boston nightclub after a dispute over a spilled drink.
After the 27-year-old former athlete hung himself, his family turned his brain over to scientists who determined that Hernandez had the one of the worst cases of the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy that they had ever seen.
CTE, which can cause premature dementia and violent behavior, is a condition caused by the sort of repeated head hits that have long been part of football. Multiple former players have sued the league over it and the NFL has scrambled to change rules to reduce the risk.
The high court’s decision clears the way for the victim’s family to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Hernandez, who had a $41 million contract when he was arrested for Lloyd’s killing, said Robert Bloom, a professor at Boston College Law School.
“What it means is that Lloyd’s family might be able to collect from the estate,” Bloom said. “They would have an action against the estate because of the wrongful death of their family member.”
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)