Aaron Hernandez will have died an innocent man under existing legal precedents. Massachusetts law holds that a convicted defendant has a right of appeal and a conviction does not become final until the appeal has been exhausted. The rationale is based on a defendant’s due process right to challenge a conviction. If death intervenes, by operation of law, the conviction is set aside.
This obviously raises concerns, particularly in a high profile case such as the Hernandez murder conviction. There are other interests that should be considered, such as: the victim and his family, the defendant’s family, reparations, the jurors who spent weeks hearing the evidence and the perception that all the time, expense, and aggravation of presenting the case at trial was for naught, that justice has not been done.
The question then becomes: Is there a better way of balancing these interests? I believe there is. The appeal could continue despite the defendant’s absence. Appellate courts review trial records to determine if there were any irregularities, normally errors of law, serious enough to order a new trial. That process need not require the presence of the defendant. Lawyers for both the prosecution and defense could still argue the merits of the appeal. Upon consideration, the court could either uphold or vacate the conviction.
The deceased defendant’s due process rights would thereby be protected without ignoring other compelling interests. To have a conviction automatically erased seems a harsh remedy when other means are available. It need not be a choice between “all or nothing at all.”
The commonwealth spent millions of dollars and countless hours trying to decide what to do in the aftermath of the 2012 Dookhan scandal. A laboratory chemist, she was found to have mishandled drug samples over several years, a finding that jeopardized an estimated 24,000 drug cases, some already processed and others pending. Instead of taking the sensible route of vacating convictions and dismissing cases that had been tainted by virtue of Dookhan’s involvement, the court ordered an exhaustive review of thousands of cases, after which prosecutors recently determined only a handful could be tried.
The time and expense involved far outweighed any likely benefit. Due process would have been better served by dismissing the drug charges en masse, which in effect was what finally happened. In my opinion, due process exists within two contexts: the obvious due process required under the Constitution to assure fairness at trial, and the less apparent due process of managing court resources. The former is required as a matter of law while the latter is administrative.
Courts are very good at applying due process in a courtroom but less adept at balancing administrative tasks. When and where can we preserve and protect constitutional due process without harming other interests, be they administrative or tangentially related to the rights of a defendant? Sometimes you cannot, but occasionally there are opportunities to do both.
I believe that the Hernandez case provides such an opportunity, and that the Dookhan aftermath was an opportunity missed.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.