The Supreme Judicial Court today tossed out a legal doctrine that calls for a person's criminal convictions to be dismissed if he dies while appealing them and reinstated Aaron Hernandez's 2015 conviction for first-degree murder.
In a case involving Hernandez's conviction for murdering Odin Lloyd, the state's highest court said the idea of abatement ab initio, in which Hernandez's murder conviction would have been vacated because he died before it could hear his appeal, is "outdated and no longer consonant with the circumstances of contemporary life, if, in fact, it ever was."
Rather, when a defendant dies irrespective of cause, while a direct appeal as of right challenging his conviction is pending, the proper course is to dismiss the appeal as moot and note in the trial court record that the conviction removed the defendant's presumption of innocence, but that the conviction was appealed and neither affirmed nor reversed because the defendant died.
A lower-court judge had, reluctantly, agreed with a request from Hernandez's lawyers to declare his murder conviction vacated because of his death. In her ruling, she wrote she was doing so because "she was bound by precedent emanating from this court to apply the doctrine of abatement ab initio."
Bristol County prosecutors, however, appealed, and the SJC agreed it was time to end the practice.
The court said the doctrine was fairly new in Massachusetts - it had only first been applied in 1975 - and so rejected the idea that it represented the sort of "long-standing or historic staple of Massachusetts common law" that courts are loathe to overturn, especially because the court never spent much time actually considering the idea. The justices said the doctrine had been applied in just two, very brief SJC decisions since then.
The court then pondered whether the principle, established through court decisions, rather than legislation, was the correct way to handle cases such as Hernandez's.
It concluded it wasn't, that, in fact, it winds up "effectively treating a defendant's appeal as though it has been successful, when, in fact, it was never decided."
The court also rejected the idea that the principle is valid because the justice system exists to punish people and you can't punish somebody who's dead. In fact, the justices continued, the justice system has other purposes, including to protect the rights of victims. In fact, Massachusetts, specifically, has a bill of rights for crime victims, and vacating a dead man's sentence could run counter to those rights, the court said.
There are a host of potential other interests than can be affected by the outcome of that prosecution and, although we must be mindful not to let any one of those other interests override a defendant's rights, they are worthy of recognition when considering the best approach to follow when a defendant dies during the pendency of a direct appeal.
And so, the court concluded:
As we have been unable to discern a reasoned analysis for the adoption of the abatement ab initio doctrine, and in any event, we are presented with substantial reasons it should be changed, we conclude that we will no longer follow the doctrine when a defendant dies during the pendency of a direct appeal as of right challenging a conviction. Instead, upon the death of the defendant, the appeal shall be dismissed as moot and the trial court shall be instructed to place in the record a notation stating that the defendant's conviction removed the defendant's presumption of innocence, but that the conviction was appealed and it was neither affirmed nor reversed on appeal because the defendant died while the appeal was pending and the appeal was dismissed.