Did Aaron Hernandez verdict change perception on celebrity crimes?

The former New England Patriots football player was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Is this a new precedent for high-profile criminal cases?

Dominick Reuter/AP
Terri Hernandez, mother of former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez hugs Shayanna Jenkins, Hernandez's fiancee, as the guilty verdict is read.

Former National Football League player Aaron Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole on Wednesday.

Found guilty for the 2013 fatal shooting of Odin Lloyd, the 25-year-old Hernandez went from the status of pro athlete with a $40 million contract and a bright future to life behind bars. Does his conviction set a new precedent for professional athletes charged with criminal activity?

Police arrested Hernandez at his home on June 26, 2013, after they found keys to a car – rented in Mr. Hernandez's name – in the deceased Mr. Lloyd’s pocket. Over the course of the trial that ended Wednesday, prosecutors presented evidence against the athlete, including proof that Hernandez was with Lloyd at the time of the murder on June 17, which occurred at an industrial park in North Attleborough, Mass. Security footage from Hernandez’s home showed him with a gun shortly after the murder.

But there was no confession and no eyewitnesses. Suffolk University Law professor Christopher Dearborn said he predicted a different outcome, reached by jurors after 36 hours of deliberation that took place over seven days.

“Based on the fundamental building blocks they were missing – no confession, no eyewitness, not a really solid motive – I thought it was going to be a not guilty,” Dearborn told The Associated Press.

Others expressed their surprise. Some posted their reactions to Twitter:

While there had reportedly been plenty of evidence against the football star, much of it got thrown out by his defense team. Brendan Koerner, a contributing columnist for The New Yorker, said in an op-ed that for someone who “seemed so obviously guilty of killing his friend,” Hernandez's status and resources resulted in a valiant effort to procure an innocent verdict. He wrote:

“[D]rama abounded as the trial wore on for weeks and weeks, thanks in part to Hernandez’s astute legal team. Damning evidence was excluded and key prosecution witnesses were made to look foolish; the lack of a credible motive seemed to be a boon to the defense.”

But as the trial progressed, and the media began to dig more into Hernandez’s backstory, his “impenetrable NFL shield” did not stand the test. He was charged in a 2012 double murder; he is a “person of interest” in Gainesville shooting in 2007; his friend is suing him for allegedly shooting him in the face. His credibility came into question, overshadowing his star status.

“The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end,” said Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn, as reported by The Associated Press.

Journalist Kenneth Arthur of Rolling Stone wrote in an article that Hernandez’s fall from fame to failure is one that should not be taken lightly. Rather than allowing him to become just “another face on an episode of Dateline,” as a society it is important to remember that he was a status figure, a person of talent that is not above committing crimes. No one is.

Arthur wrote on Rolling Stone:

We should never forget: Aaron Hernandez will always be a former NFL player, and barring an unlikely win of an appeal case, will always be a convicted murderer. Pro athletes might have more wealth and fame than us, but at their core, they are capable of making the same terrible decisions we are.

After the verdict was announced, multiple past and present NFL players, some who played college football with Hernandez at the University of Florida, shared their reactions on Twitter.

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