During the 10-month murder trial that would put the former New England Patriots tight end in prison for life, Aaron Hernandez cracked jokes with his attorneys. He flirted with his fiancée from the defense table. He rolled his eyes at the prosecution.
Hernandez is charismatic when he needs to be. When he met with Patriots owner Robert Kraft two days after he shot 27-year-old Odin Lloyd execution style in an empty industrial park with a .45-caliber Glock, he told Kraft he was innocent. Then he ended the conversation as he always did, with a hug and a kiss.
Lloyd, a landscaper and semi-professional football player, was Hernandez’s friend. The two had gone out partying just two nights before. Lloyd was even dating Hernandez’s fiancée’s sister. To get him into the car, Hernandez charmed him once more, and told him they were going to go out to a club again that night.
More than that, Hernandez charmed millions of viewers.
After his conviction yesterday, he’s still facing charges for a July 2012 double homicide, a shootout in front of the Boston club Cure. The victims were Daniel Abreu, 28, and Safiro Furtado, 29.
Prosecutors have suggested that Hernandez killed Lloyd because he knew Hernandez was a killer, although the judge ruled they could not bring this up in trial.
Hernandez allegedly killed Abreu and Furtado over a spilled drink.
If that’s true, then the Patriots fans were rooting on a murderer for an entire season.
Much has been said about Hernandez’s rough upbringing in Bristol, Connecticut. His mother was busted in a gambling ring and was remarried to an abusive coke dealer. His father gave up his college football career for petty crime, only to change his ways when his two sons were born and then die at 49 during a routine medical procedure. Aaron was only 16.
His father’s death is often cited as a critical turning point in his life—a period where his demeanor shifted, and he began to make allegiances with local Bristol thugs from whom he could never break free. This included people like Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, his alleged co-conspirators in Lloyd’s murder who are facing charges in a separate trial.
His dad’s death and his motley crew of Bristol bad boys certainly may have played a roll in his massive fall but his glib demeanor, total recklessness, and willingness to throw away a $40m contract for a petty beef suggests another factor be at play too.
It’s possible Hernandez is a textbook psychopath.
Despite the way the word is thrown around in popular culture, not all criminals are psychopaths. Psychopaths not only have specific personality traits but specific genetic makeup and brain imaging patterns.
In practice they are impulsive people with deranged morals and larger-than-life personalities.
The first psychologist to describe patients with psychotic traits or “mania sans délire”—insanity without delirium—was the French psychologist Philippe Pinel in 1801. In 1941, psychologist Hervey Cleckley delved further into the mind of the psychopath in his book, The Mask of Sanity, which details his intensive interviews with inmates and outlines the 16 character traits of psychopaths.
Cleckley’s 16 traits include, “Superficial charm and good intelligence,” “Lack of remorse and shame,” and “Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love.” The book was later updated in the 1970s by Robert Hare and, today, clinicians use an updated version of Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist to determine if someone qualifies as a psychopath.
I’m not a psychiatrist and none of the psychiatrists I spoke to said they could diagnose Hernandez without interviewing him.
But Professor Kent Kiehl, author of the Psychopath Whisper, who’s spent more than two decades interviewing diagnosed psychopaths behind bars, agreed to weigh in on a few of my questions as I compared Hernandez to the psychopath standards.
In general, says Kiehl, psychopaths have a lack of empathy, they’re hot headed, nomadic, they make up stories, and their actions are often carried out without any forethought or reflection.
Hernandez can’t have given Lloyd’s murder too much thought—he gave police surveillance from his home with videos of him holding what appeared to be the murder weapon. And even though Lloyd was his friend—or “bluntmaster,” as he was called—he can’t have felt too much remorse. The next day, Hernandez let his co-conspirators hold his baby daughter.
But as much as Hernandez seems to fit the psychopath bill, I thought there were a couple issues that might rule him out.
According to Cleckley and Hare, psychopaths have trouble following a life plan or holding a job. Hernandez had one of the most coveted jobs in the world–a $40 million contract with one of the best teams in NFL history.
But Kiehl says that Hernandez’s history suggests that had he not been one of the nation’s best athletes—or in any other circumstance—he may have lost his job.
For example, Hernandez’s former friend is pressing civil charges against him for shooting him in the face. During his time at University of Florida, Hernandez allegedly shot two other men outside a bar and punched a man so hard he shattered his ear drum.
According to Rolling Stone he also threatened to “fuck up” his teammate Wes Walker days after being drafted for not teaching him how to use the replay machine and would drive home from games alone, smoking blunts.
“He was known for not being a good teammate,” says Kiehl. “That’s the stuff that you look for.”
Hernandez’s tattoos may speak to his antisocial nature as well. The words “HATE ME NOW” are inscribed on his left arm. “BLOOD” is written on his knuckles.
“What the NFL is doing is maximizing his ability to catch footballs and win games—where in a normal business they would have fired him,” Kiehl says.
It’s possible that Hernandez’s mask of sanity lay not only in his charm—which he couldn’t turn on all of the time—but also in his brute strength.
But what about his paranoia? Several witnesses testified to it in court. Maybe Hernandez is not psychopath crazy. One of the qualifications of a psychopath is not only their “absence of delusions,” but an absence of the standard kind of nervousness that plagues the rest of us.
Kent says that Hernandez’s delusions don’t rule him out. He was, remember, doing drugs at the time. He smoked copious amounts of weed, and according to Rolling Stone, he was also smoking Angel Dust in that same offseason.
Diagnoses are best done sober, says Kent, and paranoia isn’t a true delusion. There are no accounts that Hernandez saw or heard anything that wasn’t there.
So how did the NFL let a psychopath into the league?
Well, there’s a chance that football actually made Hernandez a psychopath. If a head injury resulted in lesions in just the right place, it could have impaired his moral capacity.
“Head injury can often lead to antisocial or poor decision making,” says Kiehl, who thinks the defense should have taken an MRI. “If he has diminished capacity, then the first-degree charge may be knocked down.”
But maybe the reason the NFL didn’t see that Hernandez was a psychopath was because they didn’t want to. In the “social maturity” portion of his pre-draft psychological report, he scored a 1-10, the lowest score possible. The report said he enjoyed “living on the edge of acceptable behavior.”
The report also noted that Hernandez could one day become “a problem” for the team.
That wound up being dead right.