The disturbing saga of former New England Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez has continued to unfold before our eyes over the past few days. Hernandez has now been charged with one count of first-degree murder and is allegedly being investigated for his connection for two additional murders that took place during 2012. When authorities first approached Hernandez regarding his connection to the crime, they allegedly found that he had intentionally destroyed surveillance equipment around his home. He also handed over his cell phone to authorities “in pieces.” Although Hernandez’s legal problems run much deeper than his alleged destruction of evidence, it is important – while counseling a client in crisis – to identify what criminal consequences may arise if a client is tempted to choose this path.

As a brief background, on June 17th, the body of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd was discovered by a jogger near the home of Aaron Hernandez and a murder investigation ensued. Shortly thereafter, Hernandez’s name popped up as being potentially linked to the murder (Lloyd was the boyfriend of the sister to Hernandez’s fiancée). After a ten day investigation, Hernandez was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree murder and five gun charges. The New England Patriots terminated his contract with the team on the same day.

In breaking the surveillance cameras, Hernandez destroyed evidence that may have existed regarding his whereabouts during the night of the crime. Although he also smashed his cell phone, the police have allegedly recovered text messages sent by Hernandez around the approximate time of the crime.

In federal criminal investigations, the federal obstruction of justice statute states that:

(c) Whoever corruptly –

(1) alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding; or

(2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,

shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

18 U.S.C. 1512(c). As you can see, the twenty year maximum prison term is no slap on the wrist. If the allegations are true, Hernandez’s destruction of the surveillance cameras and cell phone would appear to fit under either prong of § 1512(c). The deletion of potentially relevant text messages may be grounds for obstruction of justice charges. Last year a former BP engineer charged with two counts obstruction of justice for deleting text messages and voicemails related to the Deepwater Horizon criminal investigation. That case goes to trial this month. In addition to the federal statute, similar statutes exist in many states and in certain states there is a common law “obstruction of justice” crime that could potentially cover this set of facts.

It remains to be seen what charges Aaron Hernandez will ultimately face and he has not formally been charged with obstruction of justice. Depending on how the details play out, the State may have the option of adding an obstruction of justice to the laundry list of charges, which could tack on significant prison time.

By Daniel W. Werly (bio)