BOSTON (NEWS10) – Legally speaking, Aaron Hernandez may have become a free man in his death.
Now, because of a legal technicality, Hernandez’s family could receive millions of dollars from the National Football League.
Massachusetts prison officials said the 27-year old was found hanging in his prison cell early Wednesday. His death came less than a week after he was acquitted of murder charges in the shooting deaths of two men in Boston in 2012.
The former NFL star was already convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancé. However, all First Degree Murder charges in Massachusetts trigger an automatic appeal.
Hernandez’s appeal had not yet been heard. In Massachusetts, courts vacate convictions of defendants who die before their appeals can be heard. As a result, Hernandez could be legally cleared.
The legal principle is called “abatement ab initio,” or “from the beginning.” It holds that is unfair to the defendant or to his or her survivors if a conviction is allowed to stand before they had a chance to clear their names on appeal, in case some kind or error or other injustice was determined to have occurred at trial, Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, told the Associated Press.
In addition, it could also mean his family gets money from the NFL and his former team, the New England Patriots.
In June 2013, the Patriots withheld $3.25 million of Hernandez’s signing bonus and refused to pay his $2.5 million in guaranteed base salary. If the conviction is thrown out, and he’s no longer a criminal in the eyes of the law, there is an argument that he no longer violated his contract with the team.
That could be money owed to his family.
“It will turn on a question of the interpretation of the player’s contract as well as the contract with the Patriots as to whether or not that money is in fact due to him,” Massachusetts School of Law Dean Michael Coyne said.
Removing a conviction after the death of a high profile defendant has happened before in recent history. In 2003, the child molestation conviction of a former Roman Catholic priest was vacated after he was killed in prison.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.