Aaron Hernandez's suicide in 2017 meant that the disgraced former football star's short life was over, but it did not mark the end of his story.
To the families who lost loved ones, his death—which came two years after he was sentenced to life in prison for a 2013 murder and five days after he was acquitted in a 2012 double homicide—didn't change the fact that their lives were forever altered.
And to his family, it meant there was no longer any chance, no matter how slight in the first place, that Hernandez would walk free, or get any sort of help. His conviction was under appeal when he died.
Over the objections of prosecutors, the state of Massachusetts vacated his murder conviction weeks later, the legally mandated outcome in cases when the defendant dies before the appeals process had been exhausted. In 2019, however, the state's highest court reinstated the conviction and basically did away with the old law, ruling it "outdated and no longer consonant with the circumstances of contemporary life, if, in fact, it ever was."
Attorney Jose Baez, who won the acquittal for Hernandez in the double-homicide case before he died, called the decision "cruel for Aaron's family, but also disappointing and discouraging to all of those families who seek to clear their loved ones' names, in a flawed system where wrongful convictions are reversed every day."
Doug Sheff, attorney for the family of Odin Lloyd, the man Hernandez had been convicted of murdering in 2013, said the Supreme Judicial Court's decision "helped the family tremendously to obtain closure from the horrible loss of their beloved Odin."
Prosecutors who successfully petitioned for the reinstatement had argued, meanwhile, that to vacate the conviction would be to "reward the defendant's conscious, deliberate and voluntary act" of suicide with comfort for Hernandez's family instead of his victim's.
The Hernandez legal team subsequently petitioned the Supreme High Court to reconsider.
And for the most part, that's where the legal portion of this twisted turn of events lies, though sufficient answers have been elusive and closure has proved fleeting for everyone who at one point was invested in Hernandez's future.
Why this guy who seemed to have it all made the decisions that he did may be an unanswerable question. Oxygen set out in March 2018 to paint a fuller picture of Hernandez's life—or double life, that is—and death in the two-part Aaron Hernandez Uncovered.
"There are so many what-ifs," Shayanna Jenkins Hernandez, Hernandez's fiancée and mother of his daughter, said in the docu-special. "You just never really know what demons he could've been facing."
The Boston Globe did a sweeping investigative "Spotlight" series and companion podcast, Gladiator, which FX secured the rights. And then 2020's Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, a limited series streaming on Netflix, became the latest deep dive into what remains an astounding fall from what at one point may have seemed like grace, but in reality was a much more precarious starting point than initially met the eye.
While the trajectory of Hernandez's life tells the story of a deeply troubled young man who was athletically gifted but prone to addiction and violence and was unable to say no to the darker side of life, even after signing a $40 million NFL contract, some who knew him continued to insist that it was Hernandez's own physical suffering that led to his moral and psychological decline.
Almost as soon as he died, there were rumors that he had had relationships with other men and had been living a lie with regard to his sexuality. Following the Netflix doc, Jenkins addressed those rumors on Good Morning America: "Although I've had a child with Aaron, I still can't tell you how he was feeling inside. No one can...If he did feel that way or if he felt the urge, I wish that I was told. I wish that he would have told me because I would not have loved him any differently."
While Jenkins, whom he'd been with since 2007, relayed that she never saw any evidence as far as she was concerned that her longtime boyfriend was gay, she also did not initially believe that Hernandez had committed suicide, which the medical examiner concluded he had done by hanging himself from a bedsheet tied to the window in his cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass.
He had written "John 3:16"—"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"—in ink on his forehead, and scrawled it on the wall in blood. Cardboard had been jammed into the door tracks, seemingly to prevent anyone from easily entering the cell. There were three handwritten notes next to his Bible, including one to "Shay," another for his daughter and a third that was reportedly for his lawyer.
"Aaron was spiritual, but he wasn't the kind of guy to get up every Sunday and go to church. Not saying that things may have changed being there, you have nothing but time to think," Jenkins said on Dr. Phil in May 2017. He had never mentioned that Bible passage before to her, she said.
Before she got the news that he was dead, Jenkins told Phil McGraw, "I felt like we were looking so bright. We were going up a ladder to a positive direction." She had spoken to him on the phone about seven hours before a guard found him dead, shortly after 3 a.m. on April 19, 2017, and she said she was convinced she wasn't getting the full story from authorities.
Jose Baez immediately called for an investigation into his client's death, saying the 27-year-old had given no indication of being suicidal.
"Look, any time anybody kills themselves in a prison, something clearly went wrong," Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters at the time, saying he had full confidence in the integrity of any investigation. A detailed report (minus the content of the suicide notes, which was redacted) was released the following month when the police concluded their inquiry.
"Aaron was a completely different figure and person than what has been portrayed," Baez told E! News in 2018. "I can tell you Aaron was a lot more intelligent, a lot more sensitive, a lot more caring than anyone has ever portrayed him to be before."
What Baez meant was that Hernandez wasn't just some reckless thug who threw his life away, nor was he the monster that he could readily come across as to anyone who only viewed him through the lens of the crime he committed.
There's no disputing that the young man had high points in his life—winning a national championship with the University of Florida, signing a $40 million contract with the New England Patriots, becoming a father to daughter Avielle Janelle Jenkins-Hernandez, who was born on her dad's 23rd birthday.
"It's just going to make me think of life differently, and doing things the right way, because I know another one's looking up to me," Hernandez told reporters two days after becoming a dad. "I can't just be young and reckless Aaron anymore. I'm going to try to do the right things, become a good father, and be raised like I was raised."
Declarations such as these are part of the reason why some insisted he was not entirely responsible for his violent downfall.
But how to reconcile that man with the one who murdered Odin Lloyd, a football player who had been dating Shayanna's sister Shaneah Jenkins, in cold blood on the morning of June 17, 2013? And then went on playing with the Patriots for another season, until the law caught up with him?
For most of his life, Aaron Hernandez was not a guy who gave up. No matter how many times he seemingly tried to torch his future, he (or someone else) managed to put out the fire.
He was traumatized by the sudden death of his own father when he was only 16, a loss that almost derailed him right then and there.
"It was a rough process, and I didn't know what to do for him," his mother, Terri Hernandez, recalled to USA Today in 2009. "He would rebel. It was very, very hard, and he was very, very angry. He wasn't the same kid, the way he spoke to me. The shock of losing his dad, there was so much anger."
But Florida was about to play for the BCS Championship, and the horizon looked promising.
"Just now everything's getting better, and it took him three years," Terri said. "I thought I lost him for good. He wasn't the same kid. Now he's back, the same fun-loving Aaron."
Though he was a prized asset on the field, Hernandez still got into his share of trouble, getting into fights, smoking weed and otherwise acting like a kid who was going nowhere.
Knowing that his professional stock was plummeting, Hernandez wrote a letter that he sent to every NFL team apologizing for the drug and behavioral offenses that dinged his otherwise impressive football resume, promising he wouldn't let them down if they gave him a chance.
The Patriots gave him that chance, snagging him in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft and considering themselves lucky to get such a talented guy so late. Hernandez even went higher than Tom Brady had—pick 199 in round six—10 years prior.
But though football kept him above water and eventually put him on top of the world, it also helped lead to his undoing, according to those who insist there's more to the story than the more tabloid-friendly "rich-NFL-star-gone-wrong" plot.
"Aaron was a special young man and unfortunately he suffered from a very serious brain disease, and as a result I think was significantly misunderstood," Baez said.
When Hernandez's body was released to his family, who buried him on April 24, 2017, in his hometown of Bristol, Conn., his brain was preserved for research. That September, doctors at Boston University's CTE Center announced that Hernandez's brain showed textbook signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has been linked to symptoms ranging from mood swings to dementia in some former athletes who endured repeated hits to the head. (In 2013, the NFL settled a class-action lawsuit brought by former players and their families over concussion-related brain injuries for a reported $765 million.)
On the same day the findings were revealed, his estate sued the NFL and the Patriots for $20 million, alleging that they "concealed and misrepresented the risks of repeated traumatic head impacts" and Hernandez paid the price. They "were fully aware of the damage that could be inflicted from repetitive impact injuries and failed to disclose, treat or protect him from the dangers of such damage," the lawsuit alleged.
Baez, who first filed the lawsuit in federal court, told reporters at the time that he regretted not bringing up CTE in his defense of Hernandez that spring.
Baez, who was not involved in Hernandez's first murder trial, told E! News that he believed the disgraced athlete did not get a fair trial and was wrongfully convicted in Odin Lloyd's murder.
He says that the prosecutor went forward without really being able to say who among the three men at the scene that night actually pulled the trigger. Accomplices Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz were both initially charged with murder but ultimately Wallace was convicted of, and Ortiz pleaded guilty to, accessory to murder after the fact.
The possibility of Hernandez having CTE (it's mainly diagnosed postmortem) was never brought up and that too could've changed the course of things, Baez says.
The Hernandez estate's lawsuit was temporarily dropped and then re-filed in October 2017 in state court, no longer including the Patriots but adding the NFL's official helmet maker, Riddell, as a defendant along with the league.
That November, the 7,100-square-foot mansion in North Attleborough, Mass., that Hernandez bought in 2012 for $1.3 million was sold to a real estate investor for $1 million.
The pile-up of complaints continued as wrongful death lawsuits—for Lloyd and the two men Hernandez was acquitted of killing outside a Boston nightclub, Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Teixeira Furtado—were filed against Hernandez's estate. Jenkins then filed suit against those men's estates to try to ensure that the proceeds from the home sale would go to her daughter.
"It's something that we're trying to pursue for his daughter, and unfortunately these cases move extremely slowly," Baez told E! News in March 2018. "So as time progresses we're moving forward as fast as we certainly can, but as thoroughly as we can."
Baez, who participated in the various documentaries and news-gathering efforts to tell Hernandez's story and wrote his own book about his late client, Unnecessary Roughness, felt that the onetime NFL star's downfall and demise could ultimately mean more than the sum of its sad, chilling parts—even if it's just to serve as a cautionary tale about CTE.
"If Aaron's legacy can carry some good, it's to show that even at a very young age, you can have this disease, and it could spread and perhaps create all kinds of tragedies—or be ultimately ending up in someone committing suicide," he said. "I really hope that's what people take away from Aaron's legacy. That he changed things, and hopefully changed them for the better."
That may never be the case, of course, for the families of Odin Lloyd, Daniel Abreu and Safiro Furtado. Their loss wasn't mitigated by Hernandez's death, or whatever suffering he may have experienced in life.
"They were good people who deserved to live, and that was robbed from them and their companionship was robbed from their families," William Kennedy, the Furtado family's attorney, told the Boston Herald after Hernandez's suicide.
That being said, Kennedy added, Safiro's father "also understands, just like the loss [he has] had and his family has had, the Hernandez family is going through perhaps something similar, and they take no joy in what happened to him and more particularly to his family."
Ernesto Abreu, the father of Daniel Abreu, told the Boston Globe, "I'm not happy about his death. It's actually a shame."
"I know everyone is looking for me to be angry, but I'm not," Lloyd's mother, Ursula Ward, told reporters after Hernandez's conviction was overturned. It was in God's hands, she said. And despite the court's ruling, "In our book he is guilty and he's going to always be guilty. I know one day I'm going to see my son, and that's the victory I have that I'm going to take with me."
The family was needless to say thankful when the Massachusetts high court once again made Hernandez legally responsible for Lloyd's death, calling their slain son "an inspiration to all who knew him and a devoted member of his family and the entire community."
In the meantime, other legal pathways for Hernandez's survivors are slowly closing. Also last year, a federal court judge in Philadelphia—where the class-action concussion suit against the NFL had ultimately been settled—dismissed the lawsuit Jenkins filed on behalf of her daughter, ruling that Hernandez was effectively retired from the NFL by the time of his death and since no move was made to separate him from the 18,000-strong body of retired players represented in the suit, he was therefore bound by the terms of the class action settlement.
In 2018, Jenkins had her second child, another daughter, with boxer Dino Guilmette. She has been living a private life, letting her lawyers be the public face of the aftermath of Hernandez's death, but in the foreword to Baez's book she noted that she would have supported him no matter what he was going through, including any revelation about his sexuality, if he had been inclined to confide in her.
"I wish I had known how he felt, just so we could have talked about it," she wrote. "I wouldn't have disowned him. I would have been supportive." But Jenkins, like Baez, believed that the CTE was what ultimately took Hernandez away from all of them and influenced his increasingly destructive behavior.
"This may sound weird to say about someone you love, but I feel like CTE researchers hit the jack pot when they got Aaron's brain," Jenkins wrote. "After all we had been through—his arrest, his trial, and his death—it was still devastating news. I cried because I realized I had tried to help him for so long, but there was nothing I could have done. I cried because there was a battle going on within his brain and he didn't even know it."
(This story was originally published on March 17, 2018, at 6 a.m. PST.)