BOSTON (Reuters) - A Massachusetts judge on Tuesday overturned former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez's conviction for murdering an acquaintance in 2013, granting his attorneys' request since the athlete died before exhausting the appeal process.
Prosecutors had argued Hernandez's prison suicide should have prevented the judge from overturning the conviction following his death, which is routinely allowed by Massachusetts state law when the conviction in question has not been fully appealed.
Hernandez, 27, hanged himself last month in a prison cell where he was serving a life sentence for the June 2013 killing of Odin Lloyd. The suicide stunned his family because it came just days after Hernandez been found not guilty of a 2012 double murder.
"This court cannot know why Hernandez chose to end his life," said Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh, who handled the 2015 trial in which a jury found the former tight end guilty of fatally shooting Lloyd in an industrial park near his home in North Attleborough, Massachusetts.
"There being no reason to recognize any exception in this case in the interest of justice the court has no choice" but to vacate Hernandez's conviction, Garsh said.
Hernandez had a $41 million National Football League contract when he was arrested at his home in June 2013 and charged with murder. Prosecution witnesses at his trials painted a picture of a troubled man with a history of drug use and paranoid tendencies.
Prosecutors plan to appeal Garsh's decision, said Thomas Quinn, the Bristol County District Attorney.
Noting that Hernandez had left his fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins Hernandez, a note that included the phrase "you're rich," Quinn said the suicide may have been intended to help his family protect assets.
"It is fair to conclude based on what was presented that it was a knowing decision that he had thought about and acted upon," Quinn told reporters, standing alongside Lloyd's mother, Ursula Ward.
Hernandez's attorneys praised the judge's decision and declined to answer reporters' questions on whether it would have any influence on civil lawsuits by the families of the men he was accused of murdering.
Hernandez was cleared last month of killing two Cape Verdean nationals, Daniel Abreu and Safiro Furtado.
"In our book, he's guilty and he's going to always be guilty," Ward said. "No one wins today. But I won because I have God on my side and with God all things are possible."
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bernard Orr and Dan Grebler