Law Schooled: Aaron Hernandez and the Double-Edged Sword of Laughter in Court

His light-hearted chuckles and close engagement in the trial is all part of a strategy to humanize him, legal experts said.

Aaron Hernandez attempted to stifle a laugh during witness testimony in his murder trial.
Aaron Hernandez attempted to stifle a laugh during witness testimony in his murder trial. –EPA/FAITH NINIVAGGI / POO

Throughout the murder trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, Boston.com will offer insight into the proceedings from local legal experts in a series called “Law Schooled.’’

Aaron Hernandez has laughed at a joke from a nervous witness. He has calmly chatted with, fist-bumped, and hugged his lawyers, particularly after the Patriots won the Super Bowl. He has chuckled at his lawyer’s mannerisms. He has looked back at his fiancée when she appeared in court and mouthed “I love you.’’ He has swaggered.

The former Patriots tight end has done all that and more while standing trial for the June 2013 murder of his friend Odin Lloyd.

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That confidence and sense of humor likely hasn’t been accidental, legal experts said. It’s all part of a defense strategy to make the physically imposing Hernandez appear more human and less like the person who would have, as prosecutors say, shot and killed Lloyd in an empty industrial park.

“It’s an attempt to create a persona that the jury would have a reasonable doubt that he did this murder,’’ said Philip Tracy, a Boston-area defense lawyer who has followed the case. “No question about it that there’s a strategy involved.’’

Hernandez’s light-hearted banter with his lawyers, combined with a well-groomed haircut and sharp dress, is all part of an attempt to appeal to the jury.

“With Hernandez, you’ve seen more of a three-dimensional person,’’ said Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk University Law School professor. “[His defense] wants to make sure he’s behaving like a person you can trust, that his lawyers feel comfortable shooting the breeze with.’’

Hernandez’s demeanor is particularly important given that much of the evidence being presented by prosecutors is circumstantial. The alleged murder weapon has not been found, and the prosecution so far has relied on analysis of shoe prints, tire tracks, and grainy surveillance video.

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Hernandez is unlikely to take the stand himself, as his defense relies less on an alibi and more on picking holes in the prosecution’s arguments. That means jurors will be closely examining Hernandez’s demeanor to get more clues into the type of person he is, Cavallaro said.

“Where [jurors] don’t have that opportunity to get a sense of him from his own testimony, you’re gonna have to put more weight on other opportunities to judge him as a person,’’ she said.

“Lawyers will say that ‘jurors spend as much time watching as they do hearing,’’’ said Martin Weinberg, a Boston-based criminal defense lawyer. “[Appearance is] pivotal in a jury’s assessment of his humanity.’’

Aaron Hernandez has appeared engaged and interested in proceedings throughout his murder trial. —AP/The Boston Globe, Aram Boghosian, Pool

During the trial, showing a personable side hasn’t seemed to be difficult for Hernandez. But for other defendants that are less at ease in a social context, defense lawyers might go so far as to fake camaraderie with a defendant to make them seem more approachable.

“I imagine that where that rapport isn’t already there naturally, a lawyer might perform it,’’ Cavallaro said.

This can take the form of a whisper in the defendant’s ear or a friendly hand on their shoulder. She even said defense teams may put a female attorney next to a physically imposing defendant as an attempt to soften their appearance.

The strategy to humanize Hernandez could backfire, though, Weinberg said. It all depends on the jury.

“Some jurors would be appalled at a defendant on trial for his life appearing as if it is not the most profound and grave experience imaginable,’’ Weinberg said.

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Consider the high-profile case of Louise Woodward, an English nanny who was accused of murder in 1997 for allegedly shaking a baby to death in Newton. Woodward displayed an unnerving laugh and a half-smile that rubbed TV viewers, and possibly the jury, the wrong way. She was convicted of second-degree murder. (It was later reduced on appeal to involuntary manslaughter.)

Cavallaro acknowledged that these judgments from visual cues can often be “unfair.’’

“To put so much emphasis on these tics people might have is really foolish,’’ she said. “And yet, we do.’’

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