You don’t have to be a football fan to know the name Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was the former New England Patriots tight end who took his own life on April 17th, 2017, just days after he was acquitted of all charges in a 2012 double murder case in Boston. After the acquittal, Hernandez remained in jail for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, a man whom Hernandez knew and occasionally hung out with. Before the dust had even settled from the court case, Hernandez was found dead in the jail, hanging by a bedsheet in his cell. He left behind a series of notes, some of which are illuminating and others baffling.
I still remember my reaction after reading the headline on ESPN.com. Why would this man, upon being found innocent of a crime, hang himself so abruptly? If he were truly innocent, did this make him innocent in the Odin Lloyd case as well? Was he actually as evil as we were led to believe? Of course, as I considered all this, a darker possibility loomed: Did Aaron Hernandez take his own life because he really was complicit in the murders for which he’d just been cleared? Was his death the result of a troubled conscience?
I tended to believe the latter. I think most of the country did, too. Hernandez had been portrayed in the media as a gun-toting gangster whose hyper-masculine tendencies had gotten him in trouble on multiple occasions. The prior murder conviction certainly didn’t do anything to help his public image, either. I, along with a lot of people, assumed that the guilt of his actions had become too much to bear, and Aaron took his own life as a result. I didn’t give the situation much of a second thought until I picked up Jose Baez’s book a year and a half later.
If you’re wondering who Jose Baez is, he’s the guy who defended Florida mother Casey Anthony when she was accused of murdering her daughter Caylee in the summer of 2008. Much like the Hernandez case, the outcome looked grim. Everyone in the country had seemingly made up their mind regarding a guilty verdict prior to the trial. Miraculously, Baez got Anthony out of everything, which is probably the number one reason people still remember his name. Almost six years later, he would do it again with an even higher-profile client: Baez would defend Aaron Hernandez, before and after his tragic death.
A couple of weeks ago, Baez released a book in which he divulged the finer details of the Hernandez trial. While it isn’t perfect, if you have even the slightest interest in the Aaron Hernandez saga, it’s probably worth a read. Baez leads us through the entire trial, from the night Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado lost their lives to the aftermath of the day Aaron lost his.
Obviously, a book written by the defense lawyer of a man accused of murder must be taken with a grain of salt. It should come as no surprise that Baez does his best to paint Hernandez in a positive light, both through stories of personal interactions and by debunking media fallacies about Aaron’s character. Naturally, Baez maintains Hernandez’s innocence from the very start. You have to expect that going in, and you should be skeptical about it.
However, it is precisely this inherent skepticism that makes Baez’s account of the murder and trial so powerful. It’s not lost on Baez how many people think Hernandez got acquitted erroneously, and he knows the public perception of him as a lawyer. He’s seen as a smarmy, smooth talking man with no morals because of the kinds of people he defends. He knows he has to treat you just as he treated the jury in order for what he says to hold any weight. Much like his profession, he’s playing defense from the first word.
This is where the book shines. Baez not only shows us the step-by-step proceedings of his defense, but he systematically dismantles the credibility of the Boston Police department by showing how they handled the case. There are dozens of instances of negligence of laziness on the parts of the detectives that would make any reasonable person suspect Hernandez in the killings. Much of the potentially-exonerating information was never made widely available to the public because it had the power to dismantle the commonwealth’s case. It was kept under wraps in order to ensure that Hernandez was depicted a certain way. For example, Baez points out how the crime scene was mishandled from the get go: officers covered the victims bodies with white sheets, contaminating the evidence before the DNA analysts could get there. As if that weren’t problematic enough, no one bothered to question the first civilian on the scene until months after the fact. His testimony would be pivotal in convincing the jury of Aaron’s innocence.
Baez throws punches at everyone from the prosecution to the New England Patriots. He spends a large amount of time discrediting the state’s star witness, a drug-dealing, former friend of Hernandez who testified on a plea deal to save himself on other convictions. The man was proven a liar after a close examination of his own text messages, and the prosecution’s case crumbled. Though that was the tipping point, continued inconsistencies on from both police officers and firsthand witnesses put the case to bed.
I’m not going to come outright and say that I believe Jose Baez and believe Aaron Hernandez was innocent. All I’m saying is that, given the evidence the way that Jose pointed it out, and given the details that the book divulges, convicting Aaron Hernandez would have been a huge mistake. You don’t have to agree that Baez is telling the truth, but he certainly won that trial. I I had been sitting on that jury, I’d have voted the same way they did.
I mentioned earlier how Baez tries to paint Hernandez in a good light. For the most part, this is true. However, Baez himself admits that Hernandez had his shortcomings. He was in and out of trouble in college; at one point, University of Florida coach Urban Meyer wanted to kick him off the team, and Hernandez was only saved by the grace of quarterback Tim Tebow who threatened to sit out the season if Hernandez couldn’t play. Hernandez was a known user of marijuana, and this led to a drop in his draft stock. Most importantly, though, Hernandez did not keep the best company. As evidenced by the state’s primary witness, he ran with drug dealers and big time hustlers. At the very least, these people put him in a position where bad things could happen. Baez does not shy away from this, and neither did Hernandez when he was alive. Baez does maintain that Hernandez was a good man mixed up in some bad things, but his inclusion of Aaron’s indiscretions allow us to judge for ourselves. The book is not a eulogization of Hernandez’s character, but it is a relatively complete account of a man who seemingly had it all but ensnared himself in some inescapable trouble.
In an especially salient chapter at the end of the book, after detailing Aaron’s death in great detail, Baez launches into a somewhat political tirade against the NFL and the game of football in general. Upon his death, Aaron Hernandez’s brain was tested for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE as the public knows it. It was found that Hernandez, age 27 at the time of his death, was suffering from stage 3 CTE. According to the book, researchers had never seen a case of CTE that bad in anyone younger than 46. Symptoms of stage 3 CTE include “progressive dementia, movement disorders, speech impediments, paranoia, depression, and thoughts of suicide.” Couple that with the earlier stage issues like mood swings and irritability, and you can see why the NFL is taking head trauma so seriously these days. Baez doesn’t think it’s enough. He ends the book by linking Aaron’s behavior over the year plus that the two knew each other as a direct result of the disease, and then spends the final few pages chastising the NFL and football at any level for being unsafe and barbaric. In one last instance of legal jargon, he claims that allowing children to play football is committing child abuse. That one is a bit of a stretch, but the man feels passionately about the subject, so who am I to attack his convictions? The points he raises about CTE and football are important enough that they warrant a book on their own, but it makes for a great segue to reflect on Aaron Hernandez’s legacy. Regardless of what happened in the Odin Lloyd case and regardless of how you feel about the murder conviction, Aaron Hernandez’s brain is being used to aid in the study of a disease that riddles thousands of football players. It’s one last positive contribution from a man who may or may not have been involved in murder during his lifetime. That’s something, at least.
Aside from oft-clunky prose and a couple spots where it seems like he’s repeating himself, Baez offers great insight into the trial that rocked the nation a few years ago. He provides a unique perspective on a very polarizing man who had the cards stacked against him, and, at the very least, gives us more information on which we can form our opinions. More information is always better, and anyone who wants to be well-versed on this subject should give Unnecessary Roughness a read. We read to learn, and this book has plenty to teach us–about false assumptions, about the legal system, about CTE. It’s all valuable.