FALL RIVER — Aaron Hernandez was once one of the New England Patriots' biggest stars. A tight end who caught passes from Tom Brady and helped land his team a spot in the Super Bowl, he had a $40 million contract and fans willing to shell out $100 apiece for jerseys bearing his name and team number: 81.
On Friday, he goes on trial for murder. Those jerseys — indeed anything with a Patriots or NFL logo or even football-related insignia — have been banned from the courthouse by the judge overseeing the trial, a reflection of the sensitivity of the case and the intense interest in it.
Hernandez is accused of killing Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semiprofessional football player from Boston who was dating the sister of Hernandez's fiancee. Lloyd was found shot to death June 17, 2013, in an industrial park near Hernandez's home in North Attleborough. Also charged with murder are two Hernandez friends: Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace. Prosecutors haven't said who pulled the trigger, but said Hernandez orchestrated the killing. Ortiz and Wallace will be tried separately.
More than 1,000 potential jurors are expected to fill out questionnaires Friday, Monday and Tuesday. Those answers will be read by prosecutors and Hernandez's defense team, who will tell the judge which jurors they hope to excuse. Those who remain in the pool will be questioned by the judge individually and out of the hearing of the media.
Each side has 18 peremptory challenges, which allows them to exclude a juror for any reason. Otherwise, lawyers will need to give a valid reason for asking a judge to exclude a juror. The questioning will continue until 18 jurors have been chosen.
Cameras aren't allowed in the courthouse during jury selection but will be allowed once opening statements begin.
J.W. Carney Jr., a Boston defense lawyer who represented crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger during his 2013 federal trial, says during jury selection, lawyers on both sides will want to listen to what a potential juror says and watch their body language carefully.
“It can reflect whether the potential juror is being candid about difficult issues,” he said. “Most people would prefer to avoid jury duty. Others want to be selected when it's a high-profile case. In both instances, they may give misleading answers to the court in order to accomplish their goals.”
Christopher Dearborn, an associate professor at Suffolk University Law School and former defense lawyer, says extensive news coverage of the case will make it more challenging to assemble an unbiased jury.
“If anybody says they have not heard about this case during the jury selection, they are lying,” he said. “If anybody says they haven't formed an opinion about this case, they are lying.”
One of the defense's goals during jury selection, Dearborn says, should be finding jurors who can still be objective, even if they've heard about the case and perhaps have already formed an opinion about it. He said the same problems popped up in the Bulger trial and are happening now in the trial of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Jury selection in the bombing case is underway in federal court in Boston.
“High-profile cases are the one area where it's challenging to have a completely fair trial in our judicial system,” he said. “The reality is that not everybody is completely honest about what they've read and what opinions they've formed when they're interviewed during the jury selection process.”
Of the 18 people selected as jurors, six will be alternates. Jurors will learn who's an alternate before they begin deliberations; that process is done through a random lottery by selecting numbers from a wooden basket.
The trial, expected to last six to 10 weeks, will not be the end of Hernandez's legal troubles. He faces separate murder charges in Boston, where he is accused of killing two men after one of them accidentally spilled a drink on Hernandez at a nightclub. The trial date has not yet been set.