Professor J. Amy Dillard is the co-author, with Lisa A. Tucker, of “Is C.T.E. a Defense for Murder?” an op-ed published by The New York Times about Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who hanged himself in prison this year at age 27.
Hernandez was serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole in the murder of a semi-pro player with whom he’d had a dispute.
Dillard and Tucker note that, among athletes, football players are disproportionately charged with crimes of violence. They are also the athletes most likely to experience repeated head trauma.
It was only after Hernandez’s death that it was established he’d suffered from an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease.
Since C.T.E. technically can be diagnosed only on autopsy, Hernandez’s lawyer was unable to mount a criminal defense based on a C.T.E. diagnosis.
But three months after Hernandez’s suicide, scientists at Boston University published the results of a study of 111 brains that had been donated by the families of deceased NFL players. All but one had C.T.E. Meanwhile, after several years of research, experts announced they had established the symptoms of C.T.E.
“While the B.U. study sample is small and nonrandom, the statistics and the disease’s behavioral manifestations could have been critical to a jury’s analysis in Mr. Hernandez’s 2015 murder trial,” Dillard and Tucker wrote, noting that in Massachusetts, where Hernandez was tried, the law requires the government to prove all elements of a crime, including criminal responsibility, beyond a reasonable doubt.
They concluded: “Because of the post-mortem C.T.E. diagnosis, we now know there was substantial evidence that Mr. Hernandez should not have been convicted of first-degree murder. Given the conclusive diagnosis of Stage 3 C.T.E., it is likely that a lifetime of playing football — not Mr. Hernandez’s will — was to blame.”
Learn more about Professor Dillard. Tucker is an associate professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.