Aaron Hernandez very likely won't be known as a convicted murderer for much longer.
The death of the former New England Patriots tight end Wednesday will almost certainly lead to the expungement of his 2015 first-degree murder conviction for the slaying of Odin Lloyd since the case was still under appeal in Massachusetts.
"The key here is when a defendant is no longer able to assist with his appeal, the law says the conviction should be vacated,” Massachusetts School of Law Dean and President Michael Coyne told USA TODAY Sports. “In a sense, it goes back to the point where he was only charged.”
The Massachusetts Appeals Court will probably vacate Hernandez's conviction in the coming months.
Coyne said the law is the same in several states and even on the federal level.
“The death of a defendant pending his appeal has consistently been held to abate the prosecution ab initio (from beginning to end),” U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock wrote in a 1994 ruling.
Hernandez, Coyne points out, is hardly the first high-profile case in Massachusetts where a conviction was vacated in this manner.
Defrocked Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan, who was found guilty of child molestation in 1991, was killed in prison in 2003. That led the state's appeals court to vacate his conviction later that year.
Like Hernandez, Geoghan had appealed the conviction. More than 150 people accused Geoghan of sexual abuse, although the statute of limitation laws at the time hampered prosecutors’ efforts to pursue more charges.
"It's as though the reporting of father John J. Geoghan's sexual abuse, his trial, and the jury decision never existed," attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represented many of the Geoghan's alleged victims, told the Associated Press in 2003.
Legislators in Massachusetts have made attempts over the years to close the loophole where death leads to expungement in a case under appeal.