BOSTON (AP) — The legal tradition in Massachusetts of erasing criminal convictions when a defendant dies before an appeal can be heard is coming under renewed scrutiny following the prison death of Aaron Hernandez.
A judge dismissed the murder conviction of the former New England Patriots player in the 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player, after Hernandez was found hanging in his cell in April. His death, later ruled a suicide, came just days after he was acquitted of the most serious charges in a separate double murder case.
The basis for the ruling was a legal principle dating back centuries and formally known as abatement ab initio, or “from the beginning.” It holds that a defendant convicted at trial but who dies before an appeal is heard should no longer be considered guilty in the eyes of the law, thereby returning the case to its pretrial status.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan asked the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Monday to endorse legislation that would end the practice. Under her proposal, which several other states have adopted, convictions would stand but family members of defendants or attorneys representing their estates could continue to pursue appeals after death.
Such a system, Ryan argued, would provide justice for victims and their families, while also assuring the defendant received a fair trial.
“If there has been a mistake or something has been done wrong during a trial, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have that reviewed so we don’t repeat it,” she said prior to testifying at the Statehouse on Monday.
Ryan initially filed the measure in 2015 and was not involved in the Hernandez prosecutions.
More recently, Democratic Rep. Evandro Carvalho introduced a more narrowly focused bill that would eliminate automatic dismissals of convictions only in cases when a defendant dies by suicide.
In arguing last month to let Hernandez’s conviction stand, prosecutor Patrick Bomberg says Hernandez should not be allowed to “accomplish in death what he could not accomplish in life.”
Carvalho said he filed his bill after meeting with Lloyd’s mother, Ursula Ward, a constituent of his from Boston.
“She knew that the murderer of her son had been found guilty, and years later for that to just go away because of an old precedent or a principle of law didn’t make sense to me or to her,” Carvalho said.
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