Analysis  

 

Aaron Hernandez's probable cause hearing likely a formality

Aaron Hernandez will be in a Massachusetts courtroom Wednesday for the first time since his bail hearing nearly a month ago. And, chances are, not much will have changed by the time he returns to the Bristol County House of Correction and Jail.

The former New England Patriots tight end, who pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder in June, has a probable cause hearing scheduled in Attleboro District Court, but the likelihood is that there won't be any hearing at all. Instead, the Bristol County district attorney's office is likely to file for a 30-day continuance to allow the grand jury, which has been convened, to proceed with the investigation and pursuit of an indictment.

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Once Hernandez is indicted, the case will move to Massachusetts Superior Court, and there won't be a need for a hearing like the one that's scheduled for Wednesday. The defense might object to the 30-day continuance, wanting the chance to examine witnesses under oath, but according to those in the know, this hearing is more a matter of procedure than anything else, especially since so much was laid out in the bail hearing.

"These (hearings) are basically tracking dates," said Gerry Leone, a partner at the firm Nixon Peabody and a former state and federal prosecutor who served as district attorney in nearby Middlesex County (Mass.) from 2006 to 2013. "They're not going to make the commonwealth go forward with this hearing. They'll keep continuing it until the indictment is done. The court likes to hold the government's feet to the fire, but the probable cause hearing is a mechanism not used much anymore, never mind in a case like this."

That doesn't mean there aren't important dates coming. The primary one, for now, sits at the end of September, the end date for this session of the grand jury. The judge could keep things going beyond then, by holding the old jury over or simply handing it off to a new one, but logistically, it's a lot easier to just push for the grand jury to wrap things up by the end of the quarter.

And when that happens, we'll learn more -- particularly as to the involvement of figures like Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz in the overall scheme of things, and perhaps about charges related to other potentially connected crimes.

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"It's gonna be interesting, who the defendants are and what they'll (ultimately) be charged with," said Harry Manion, a Massachusetts-based founding partner at Cooley Manion Jones who is also a trial lawyer with experience representing teams, players and agents. "What is Ortiz charged with? What is Wallace charged with?"

There also could be new suspects to charge, new connections to other cases and/or new aspects to this case to emerge.

What's unlikely to change, based on the case, is the first-degree murder charge against Hernandez in the death of Odin Lloyd. Another experienced former prosecutor said, "Based on what we've seen, it's very strong. There are lots of different types of evidence here. We've got video evidence, chronological evidence, physical evidence, witness testimony, witnesses fingering people, motive evidence, and I know you haven't heard all of it, but they're developing it, and what they call prior bad acting evidence."

Manion took it a step further, adding, "It's as strong a case as I've ever seen at this stage of the game."

Eventually, the defense might try to get the charge knocked down to second-degree murder, which carries a minimum 15-year sentence, or manslaughter. For now, Hernandez stands as innocent until proven guilty, but given what the prosecution has presented thus far, it seems unlikely there will be any deal-making in the foreseeable future.

If the case proceeds as expected and the grand jury indicts Hernandez, a presumptive trial schedule will be set. An arraignment in Superior Court in Fall River, Mass., would follow, then a pretrial conference would be set up. All the while, the prosecution and defense will be filing pretrial motions, which could be aimed at discovery, the search warrants or the evidence.

Then -- far down the road -- it'll snake through the system to trial.

Chances are, we're at least a year out from that, with the government packaging discovery and getting it to the defense, the defense taking time to figure out what it needs, securing experts for the trial, and establishing forensic evidence. The short estimate is that the whole affair will be a process of 12-18 months.

By that point, what happens Wednesday will look like more of a checkpoint than a milestone on the way to a verdict.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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