(CNN) — Aaron Hernandez‘s murder conviction is expected to be dismissed posthumously because of a legal rule called “abatement.”
That would mean, legally speaking, Aaron Hernandez died an innocent man.
Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell and was found dead early Wednesday morning, the Massachusetts Department of Correction said. Hernandez had been serving a sentence of life in prison without parole after being convicted of the June 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.
But a court will vacate that conviction because Hernandez’s appeal was pending, said Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University who has written about abatement.
“The idea is that if an appeal hasn’t happened, there’s a chance that a conviction has an error in it,” she told CNN. “Rather than have someone with that incomplete decision that they’re guilty, the state chooses instead to say that conviction is abated — as if it never had happened.”
The conviction’s dismissal is “pro forma,” or automatic, she said.
Hernandez, who was acquitted last Friday in a separate murder trial, had appealed the Lloyd murder conviction. A date for a hearing had not been set.
The abatement law is “quirky” and “esoteric,” Cavallaro said, but not without significant consequences.
Civil lawsuits, in which a harmed party sues for damages, often rely on a criminal conviction as its basis of facts.
“You could piggyback off that criminal conviction to get to the place where you’re only litigating damages,” Cavallaro said. “Now that’s not available anymore.”
Rule aims to serve justice
The issue of abatement has come up in other high-profile examples, such as after the death of convicted Enron executive Kenneth Lay.
In Massachusetts, John Salvi was convicted of murder in 1996 for opening fire at a Planned Parenthood in Brookline. He committed suicide in his prison cell before his appeal, officials said, and so his conviction was abated.
The death of John J. Geoghan, a priest at the center of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, also led to the abatement of his conviction.
Though often frustrating, the rule is still a solid one for ensuring a just system that includes appeals, Cavallaro said.
“If you die before that part of the process, it’s as if we’re saying you didn’t get the full process,” she said. “We’d rather err on the side of erasing convictions, than allow convictions to stand that have not been reviewed.”