Editor’s note: This story was originally published on April 19 and has been updated to reflect the official abatement of Hernandez’s murder conviction.
Disgraced NFL star and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez died in April “an innocent man” — according to a little-known legal doctrine in Massachusetts that traces its origins to English common law, one outside expert tells PEOPLE.
Martin Healy, the chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, explains that the state observes abatement ab initio, which in criminal proceedings is applied if a defendant dies before their direct appeal is resolved.
Under abatement ab initio (the latter phrase meaning “from the beginning”), the defendant’s case returns to its initial phase and the slate, including conviction, is wiped clean.
“It’s as if the trial has never happened, and it’s as if the indictment has never happened,” says Healy, who is unconnected to the case.
So “under the eyes of the law, Hernandez has died an innocent man,” Healy continues. “He has not been convicted of any crime in Massachusetts.”
Though the Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney’s Office — which successfully prosecuted Hernandez for murder — fought his abatement in court, a judge on Tuesday ruled that “abatement is the law in this commonwealth, and this court is required to follow that precedent,” according to the Boston Herald.
In a news conference following the ruling, Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn said he plans to appeal what he called an “antiquated rule.”
Hernandez “should not be able to accomplish in death what he could not have accomplished in life,” Quinn said.
Ursula Ward, the mother of Odin Lloyd, the man Hernandez was convicted of killing, appeared with Quinn at the news conference.
“In our book, he’s guilty and he will always be guilty,” she said, according to the Herald. “But I know one day, I will see my son again.”
“No one wins today, but I win because I have God on my side,” she said.
Hernandez’s appellate attorney, who sought the abatement, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Officials say the 27-year-old Hernandez, formerly a tight end with the New England Patriots, hanged himself in his prison cell sometime before about 3 a.m. on April 19, only days after being found not guilty of two murders.
He was set to remain in prison without parole, however, after being convicted of murdering Lloyd in 2013.
“Time will judge Mr. Hernandez and his actions,” Healy says.
“In terms of the legality of it, the criminal matter has now been basically nullified.”
How the Doctrine Works
Healy says abatement ab initio has its roots in common law brought over from England.
“When it was thought of back hundreds of years ago, there was a focus more on defendants’ rights than victim rights,” he says.
According to Healy, abatement was seen as a form of protection for defendants even after death, so that they would not be unfairly tarnished by a conviction that they would have continued to fight on appeal, had they not died.
As Tim Razel, who covered the doctrine’s use and history in a 2007 Fordham Law Review article, further explains:
Abatement is a reflection of the integrity of the appeals process, and it arose at a time in criminal law when the courts were more concerned with how the justice system could punish convicted criminals. When a convict died, there was no longer anyone to punish — how abating a conviction might affect the victims was not a factor.
The doctrine is largely unknown even to attorneys, but its use is controversial, Healy says. “There’s a lot of debate nationally,” he says, adding, “It remains one of the few legal principles that can cause a lot of confusion and can cause a lot of unjust results.”
By “unjust,” he is referring to critics who argue that abatement ab initio is anti-victim — rescinding the justice they had already received.
District Attorney Quinn referenced such criticisms at his news conference Tuesday, saying, “At the very least, the court should strike a reasonable balance between the rights of defendants, victims and the public.”
The doctrine is not universally applied, either: While Healy says several other jurisdictions in the U.S. apply it as Massachusetts does, some states do not recognize it at all; and of the states that do apply it, they do not apply it all the same way.
Healy says he expects there to be renewed focus on the doctrine, given its use in the Hernandez case. Any changes to its use would have to come from the legislature or the highest court at the state or federal level, Razel says.
“We’re dealing with a very archaic legal principle versus modern times,” which have rightfully emphasized victims’ rights, Healy says.
That debate won’t have an effect on Hernandez, however.
“For all intents and purposes,” Healy says. “The matter died with [him].”