Ursula Ward – the mother of murder victim Odin Lloyd – testified at the State House Tuesday in front of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in support of a statute intended to prevent convictions from disappearing if a defendant commits suicide before the appeal process is over.
The bill, titled “An Act Relative to Odin Lloyd,” was created in reaction to the removal of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez’s first-degree murder charge. Hernandez received a life sentence without parole in 2015 for shooting Lloyd in 2013. Following his suicide in his jail cell last April, Hernandez’s charge was removed by Bristol Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh because the charge was under appeal when Hernandez died, a legal procedure known as abatement ab initio.
Rep. Evandro Carvalho, who followed Hernandez’s trial, backed Ward by sponsoring the bill.
Carvalho wrote in a statement that Ward had come to terms with Odin’s death only to see everything unravel after Hernandez committed suicide.
“Once again Ursula Ward had to relive her son’s death, and sat helpless as Mr. Hernandez’s conviction was vacated,” Carvalho wrote. “This hopelessness and loss of faith in our justice system troubled me. I met with Ms. Ward and decided that as her State Representative I had a responsibility to help however I could.”
Carvalho wrote that Garsh was following binding precedent and current law, a decree he hopes will forever change.
“Simply put, my legislation would abolish this right of “Abatement ab Initio” only for those who have committed suicide,” Carvalho wrote. “I hope that the successful passing of this legislation will assure that no family will ever need to go through the trauma that Ursula Ward has lived through.”
Douglas Sheff, Ward’s lawyer and a wrongful death attorney, said abatement ab initio is an “ancient doctrine” which must change, and it could, with the success of this bill.
“If the bill passes, criminals couldn’t wipe out their convictions and victims will have their satisfaction and their justice,” Sheff told The Daily Free Press. “The conviction will stand.”
Sheff said Ward came to him after the passing of her son as she was seeking justice under both the criminal and civil justice systems. He said Tuesday’s hearing went well as the committee was “attentive,” “concerned” and “receptive.”
“It was a little heart wrenching — it was tough for Ursula to keep reliving this,” Sheff said. “She wants to stop others from reliving this. This can maybe help people, not just Ursula but all of the countless people that you don’t hear about, not murdered by famous athletes — they are also suffering too.”
Margaret Drew, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote in an email that the bill is “oddly narrow in its scope.”
“The bill’s language should not be tailored to the narrow circumstances of a defendant’s suicide,” Drew wrote. “I would generalize the language of what happens when any convicted defendant dies while an appeal is pending.”
Drew wrote those who follow this trial should remember that some convictions are overturned and may be returned to the lower court for a new trial.
“Not only may procedural and substantive law be misapplied, but a convicted defendant may in fact be determined to have not committed the underlying crime,” Drew wrote. “Certainly, the work of innocence projects has proved that our criminal justice system can be flawed.”
Demi Bui, 23, of Fenway, said someone should be exposed for the crime, despite the suicide.
“With how our society works, the blame would need to be placed somewhere, so I’m not sure if canceling the law would make a difference,” Bui said. “I think the law should be canceled because we shouldn’t be giving them an easy out.”
Dwight Duncan, a professor of law at UMass Amherst, wrote in an email that the bill is not retroactive and will not affect Hernandez’s situation.
“I think the traditional practice can be defended as a way of giving the benefit of the doubt to deceased convicted criminals who, due to their death, were not able to test the legal sufficiency of their guilty verdicts on appeal,” Duncan said. “Of course, the law can only operate prospectively, so it will not rectify the Aaron Hernandez case in any event.”
Julie Donlon, 60, of Jamaica Plain, said she believes the original law, abatement ab initio, should remain in place.
“If they are dead then it’s not an issue,” Donlon said. “Seeing that Hernandez has passed away, it really doesn’t make that much of a difference to me.”
Kimberly Smith, 40, of Dorchester said a suicide in the midst of a trial encumbers the judge as to who to condemn.
“It only appeals to the person who did the crime, but if he is no longer living, who are you convicting?” Smith said. “Are you going after the City now? Are you going after the governor or the mayor? I feel like it is a waste.”
Along with Carvalho, the bill was petitioned by 18 other Massachusetts state representatives.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated Margaret Drew and Dwight Duncan were professors at UMass Boston, when they actually teach at UMass Amherst. An updated version reflects this correction.