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Legally Speaking: What if Aaron Hernandez lived, killed and died in Arizona?

FILE - In this Friday, April 14, 2017, file photo, Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez turns to look in the direction of the jury as he reacts to his double murder acquittal at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston. Hernandez hung himself and was pronounced dead at a Massachusetts hospital early Wednesday, April 19, 2017, according to officials. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, Pool, File)

Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots football player and convicted killer, committed suicide last week in prison. At the time of his death, he was serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd and had just been acquitted of another murder.

However, in a weird twist of fate, the first-degree murder conviction is no more.

If you conduct an internet search on Hernandez, you will see articles about his sexuality, his gang ties, his football statistics, whether the Patriots owe him money and articles about a concept called “the doctrine of abatement ab initio.” Think: “Back to the beginning.”

Massachusetts law follows this arcane concept that basically means if you die while your case is in the appellate system, then the entire case gets thrown out.

Yes, it is as if the conviction and the case never existed. Enter Hernandez, since his conviction was in the appellate courts at the time of his death, the courts now consider him an innocent man.

Arizona had the same law — until just recently.

Arizona followed that same arcane concept until the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, and presumably others, worked to change the law. Had Hernandez been convicted, appealed and then committed suicide in Arizona prior to 2014, he would be considered an innocent man.

In 2013, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in State v. Glassell that “death pending appeal abates the appeal and the conviction.”

Why on Earth did the Court continue to uphold this you may ask? Well, the Court wrote “the interests of society have been satisfied, the imposition of punishment is impossible, and the collection of fines or forfeiture results in punishing innocent third parties.”

In other words, since the defendant is dead then the punishment is over and no one benefits from keeping the conviction on the record especially if doing so would hurt the defendant’s innocent family members or heirs. This did not sit well with agencies and lawmakers who asked the questions: What about the victims? What about orders for restitution? 

Enter Arizona Revised Statute 13-106, Death of convicted defendant; dismissal of appellate and post-conviction proceedings. Although any pending appeal or post-conviction proceeding is still dismissed on the defendant’s death, there is no “abatement” of the conviction, sentence, restitution, fine or assessment. So, Hernandez would still be considered a convicted killer in Arizona.

Arizona is not always on the cutting edge of new laws and often times finds itself towards the bottom of various lists and polls. That being said, according to Ryan Anderson, communications director with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Arizona became the first state in the country to change its law to hold that a convicted person’s death does not abate the criminal conviction or any restitution orders.

So often we hear about the flaws our state has and not the proactive steps it takes to change things. I am proud to say that Arizona does work hard to champion the rights of victims, and this is a perfect example.

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