Jury pool trimmed ahead of Aaron Hernandez’s trial
FALL RIVER, Mass. – A judge on Thursday excused 325 potential jurors for the upcoming murder trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez – the bulk of the dismissals agreed to by both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
But the judge also took a hard line on requests to dismiss jurors who were disputed by one side or the other, ruling time and again that she would bring the potential panel members in for questioning by her.
A fan of the New England Patriots? Hernandez was your favorite player?
It didn’t matter – time and again Judge E. Susan Garsh said, “I’ll bring them in.” That process begins Friday morning when the first 60 potential jurors are scheduled to arrive in court to be questioned individually by the judge in a process known as voir dire.
“I don’t want to be a juror,” one of 1,055 potential panel members wrote on an extensive questionnaire about the case.
“A lot of people don’t want to be jurors,” Judge Garsh responded, “but they don’t get to be excused just because they write that. I’ll bring them in.”
That means 730 potential jurors remain in play.
Hernandez faces one count of first-degree murder and two weapons charges in the June 17, 2013, killing of Odin Lloyd. A 27-year-old semi-professional football player, Lloyd was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins.
Prosecutors have alleged that Hernandez summoned two associates from his hometown of Bristol, Conn., to his Massachusetts home late the night of June 16, 2013, and simultaneously made plans to meet with Lloyd. Hernandez then allegedly drove the other two men, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace Jr., to the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, picked up Lloyd, and returned to North Attleboro.
According to court documents, Hernandez allegedly drove into a secluded area in an industrial park that is surrounded by woods and mounds of asphalt, gravel and dirt. There, Lloyd was shot multiple times.
Although prosecutors have not said who they believe fired the fatal shots, they have asserted that Hernandez "orchestrated" the killing. Ortiz and Wallace have also been indicted on murder charges but will be tried separately. The prosecution does not plan to call either as a witness in the trial.
Prospective jurors had come to the courthouse in waves over three days, each one of them answering 51 questions about the case – everything from their understanding of basic constitutional principles to their attitudes about race and tattoos.
Hernandez, the heavily inked former Pro Bowl player, is Hispanic, and his fiancée, with whom he has a young daughter, and Lloyd are both African-American.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys had spent Wednesday with the questionnaires, and Thursday morning they jointly agreed to the dismissal of 186 prospective jurors for what is known as “good cause” – for example, a connection to someone in the case, a medical condition that would make it impossible to serve, or a deeply held belief that would render it impossible to render a fair verdict. They jointly agreed to strike another 59 after lunch.
After that, each side took turns listing jurors it wanted to dismiss. The reasons varied – a college student whose school is in another part of the state; bias against tattoos or people who own guns; a prospective juror who knows potential witnesses in the case.
But more often than not, the judge concluded that it was worth bringing the prospective juror in for individual questioning before deciding whether to dismiss the person.
The most frequently cited reason one side or the other asked for a dismissal was the answer to question No. 26: “Have you expressed or formed any judgment or opinion with respect to this case?”
Because the questionnaires were sealed, it was often not clear in court what answer bothered the prosecution or the defense.
But one juror who claimed to be a “huge fan” of the Patriots and that Hernandez was “one of her favorite players” didn’t get cut loose, nor did one who didn’t want to sit in judgment of another person.
Through that process, the judge eliminated another 80 prospective jurors.
The predominantly white men and women who were called to the courthouse will eventually be whittled to a jury of 18 – six of them will ultimately be designated as alternates – who will be tasked with deciding guilt or exoneration in the highly anticipated prosecution of Hernandez in Lloyd’s murder.
Once the judge begins individually questioning jurors, she will make a determination on each one — whether he or she can be “fair and impartial” to both sides or should be dismissed for “good cause.” At that point, each side will have the ability to toss out the person without giving any reason – something that will continue until each side has exhausted 18 dismissals known as “peremptory” challenges and there are 18 certified jurors remaining.
That process is expected to last into next week. Once testimony begins, it has been estimated that the trial may last six to 10 weeks.
The case is being watched closely, and the judge earlier issued an order to prevent anyone entering the courtroom wearing any Patriots, NFL or other team logos.
Hernandez has separately been indicted on multiple murder and assault charges in a July 16, 2012, shooting in South Boston that left two men dead and another wounded.
In the Boston killings, prosecutors have alleged that Hernandez became enraged after a man bumped him on a nightclub dance floor, spilling his drink, and failed to apologize. They alleged that later Hernandez followed the man and his friends as they drove away from the club, then pulled up next to their car at a stoplight and opened fire with a .38-caliber revolver, killing Daniel De Abreu, 29, and Safiro Furtado, 28, and wounding another man.
That trial was originally scheduled to begin May 28, but the judge there indicated recently he would push it back given the anticipated length of the current trial. However, no new date has been set.