The ability to reset the posthumous record opens up vast opportunities for the heirs to claw back the money lost when the one-time Patriots star got a life sentence for murder. And with the stakes so high, the most obscure details become critical.
When Aaron Hernandez hung himself in his cell last week, his once-promising life came to a dead end but the suicide triggered a unique cascade of legal contingencies.
He’ll never clear his name or be remembered as a hero. However, his family may now have a chance to recover a multi-million-dollar settlement from the NFL -- provided of course that the chips fall in their favor.
There are two separate routes to a big-bucks outcome for Hernandez’ four-year-old daughter and other survivors here. They may cross and even cancel each other out.
It’s going to get complicated.
Start with the brain
When the Boston state medical examiner balked at releasing Hernandez’ brain along with the rest of his body, the family moved fast to bring in high-powered legal support.
Everyone knew the death would be ruled a suicide. But in the world of pro football, the brain reveals whether too many hits to the helmet caused repetitive injury and personality changes.
Multiple suicides have been traced back to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which in turn can trigger a wide range of early-onset nervous disorders like Lou Gehrig’s, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
At least one case also turned violent, so it’s possible that the murders that ended Hernandez’ career were the product of physiological damage and not any form of criminal intent.
Unfortunately, the syndrome can only be diagnosed after death, which is why recovering the brain -- such a ghoulish detail on the surface -- was actually vital here.
Hernandez had recently been found not guilty on two homicides and in the last weeks of his life he filed an appeal to overturn his 2013 conviction on a third.
If the specialists see the right signs of trauma in his brain, a nimble lawyer can argue that football itself damaged his personality and created a set of extenuating circumstances.
Brain scans in court are tricky business, but the family’s lawyer is definitely nimble. He’s Jose Baez, who successfully represented Casey Anthony several years back.
The right set of expert witnesses can dazzle the appellate court and maybe clear the Hernandez name after the fact.
Meanwhile, the NFL has already agreed to pay up to $5 million to players with brain trauma. Now that Hernandez is dead, the family can find out whether they can file a claim.
It’s a nebulous area, admittedly. Hernandez didn’t exactly retire because his nervous system was visibly failing, so that isn’t an obvious route to settlement money.
Of course, if the brain turns out to be clean, the neurological narrative hits a brick wall.
Either way, if the coroner had damaged the tissue or failed to preserve it, there’d be no way for the family to know one way or another.
They definitely deserve closure. After all, they know better than anyone if a life of football changed his personality.
And if there’s a settlement here, the family of the man Hernandez killed will probably get a share as well.
It’s not hard to imagine the Patriots organization doing its best to keep that from happening, but once again, now that the experts have the brain, the truth will eventually come out.
Innocent in death?
Meanwhile, Hernandez’ suicide may actually have voided his guilt under the minutia of Massachusetts law. With an appeal pending, the conviction can be vacated outright, bringing him back to a state of legal innocence.
In that scenario, the Patriots’ justification for clawing back millions of dollars from their disgraced player becomes a lot less clear-cut.
Granted, Hernandez embarrassed the team by shooting a man. That’s probably never going to be a topic of debate.
But if the conviction evaporates, there’s technically no guilt. The family has room to try to recover a few million dollars from the voided contract.
In one of the many perverse ironies of this story, they can use that money to settle with the victim and pay Hernandez’ outstanding IRS bills.
Again, it takes a nimble lawyer to pull it off. And again, they have one already working on their team.
Of course, the logic plays a lot stronger if it truly wasn’t Hernandez’ fault but some fault in his brain that pro football itself helped cause.
That brain opens an opportunity for restitution for two grieving families.
Supposedly Hernandez was in a relaxed mood right before he was found dead in his cell. He’d gotten that “not guilty” verdict on the other homicides and talked to his long-time fiancee, the mother of his daughter.
The fiancee doesn’t automatically inherit anything here because Massachusetts doesn’t recognize common-law relationships.
But the four-year-old daughter definitely does. If Hernandez were still alive, the enigma of the crime that sent him to prison would still be locked in his skull and she’d inherit little if anything.
Did he die to give her a shot at a better future? Or, like too many football players, did he kill himself because too many shots on the helmet sent his mood swinging?
The brain will reveal. For now, the scientists are busy. The lawyers are undoubtedly even busier.