Former NFL player Hernandez found guilty of first-degree murder

Aaron Hernandez, a former tight end with the New England Patriots who caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the 2012 Super Bowl, completed a stunning fall Wednesday when a Massachusetts jury found him guilty of first-degree murder.

It was a staggering judgment for Hernandez, 25, who in August 2012 signed a five-year contract extension worth roughly $40 million and who would have been in the prime of his career playing for one of the country’s marquee sports franchises.

The jury in Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River, Massachusetts, ruled that Hernandez acted with “extreme atrocity or cruelty” in the June 2013 shooting death of 27-year-old semiprofessional football player Odin Lloyd. Lloyd, who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee, was found shot six times in an industrial park not far from Hernandez’s home.

(Commentary: Hernandez verdict shows the dark side of “Boston Strong”)

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Upon hearing the verdict, which followed a 76-day trial and 35 hours of deliberation, Hernandez’s face remained expressionless. He sat down and appeared to mouth, “unreal.” He shook his head and licked his lips, holding his chin up. An officer handcuffed Hernandez’s tattooed hands together.

The verdict brought an automatic sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

“Aaron Hernandez may have been a well-known New England Patriots football player,” Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said in a news conference outside the courthouse. “However, in the end, the jury found that he was just a man who committed a brutal murder. The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end.”

Although the conviction of a National Football League player in his prime for a crime as serious as murder is extremely rare, the verdict nonetheless was unwelcome news for the league, which has confronted numerous cases of violent, off-the-field behavior by players in recent years. The league came under public scrutiny this past season in the wake of several prominent domestic abuse incidents involving its players.

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The NFL and the Patriots had no immediate comment on the jury’s decision.

Hernandez will next stand trial in a separate case, a 2012 double murder in Boston that occurred months before he signed his contract extension. Prosecutors say Hernandez fired five shots into a car and killed Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado following an altercation at a nightclub.

The prosecution in the Lloyd killing won despite a circumstantial case. It provided no clear motive, could not produce a murder weapon and called no witness to the shooting. The state did call 132 witnesses, including experts in electronic communication, Patriots Owner Bob Kraft and Shayanna Jenkins, Hernandez’s fiancee, whose sister Shaneah was dating Lloyd when he was killed. It built a meticulous case even with the lack of key, hard evidence, relying in part on home security footage from Hernandez’s own system.

Hernandez’s high-powered, high-priced defense team attempted to pick apart the state’s case. The defense admitted Hernandez was at the scene of the murder in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

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“He was a 23-year-old kid, who witnessed something, a shocking killing committed by someone he knew,” James Sultan, one of Hernandez’s lawyer, said in a closing statement. “He didn’t know what to do.”

Throughout the trial, Hernandez exuded eerie confidence. He strutted into the courtroom in crisp suits. He greeted lawyers at the start of deliberations with a fist-bump. Reporters who covered Hernandez’s football career say he used to walk through the Patriots locker room with similar bravado.

Hernandez’s mother, Terri, and fiancee sat behind him sobbing in court Wednesday as the verdict was read. His fiancee shook and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Surrounded by his three defense lawyers and four courtroom officers, Hernandez peered over his right shoulder at them.

The trial’s result adds to the stain on the Patriots’ organization, which for years touted their “Patriot Way” ethos as both a formula for victory and a molder of character. The Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl in February, defeating the Seattle Seahawks, 28-24.

In signing Hernandez to a lucrative contract, the Patriots believed he had surmounted a troubled background that caused other NFL teams to worry about his off-field behavior at the University of Florida, where the police questioned him after a shooting in 2007 and recommended a felony battery charged against him after a fight at a restaurant. He also was suspended for the 2008 season opener for a positive test for marijuana.

On the day he signed his contract, Hernandez referred to Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and the franchise’s proud history, telling reporters, “You get changed by the Bill Belichick way. You get changed by the Patriot Way.”

Wednesday morning, Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, was among four family members who addressed the court as impact witnesses.

“Odin was the first born of three children,” Ward said. “Odin was my only son. Odin was the big boy of the family. Odin was the man of the house. Odin was his sister’s keeper.” Later, Ward called Lloyd “the most precious gift I ever received,” and she wept.

Pending a potential appeal, Hernandez will spend his life sentence at Massachusetts Correctional Institute Cedar Junction in Walpole. The facility is a 3.7-mile drive away from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the Patriots play home games.