The story of Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots star turned convicted murderer, always comes down to why.
Why would Hernandez kill his friend Odin Lloyd, when he was on top of the world after signing a $40 million contract extension with the Patriots? By what means did he avoid accountability for violent outbursts dating back to his college days? How could a person described at times as fun-loving, sensitive and vulnerable flip to homicidal aggression?
Possible answers to those questions emerge in the Netflix documentary series Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, directed by Geno McDermott. The series, told in three parts, is now in contention for Emmy nominations.
“I think he was living a double life,” McDermott says of Hernandez. “He was able to, during the day, be an amazing athlete, amazing football player. He was able to fold into the Patriots organization. Then at night he was able to switch over into this dark side and completely change. It’s just amazing he was able to get through life like that.”
Killer Inside explores how Hernandez grew up in an abusive household, dominated by an alcoholic and homophobic father. Aaron may have been gay, but may have kept that hidden not only given his dad but the hyper-masculine world of football.
Hernandez excelled at the punishing sport and became an All-American at the University of Florida, a key part of a national championship squad. There were troubling signs about his behavior there—an assault on a bar manager and possible involvement in a shooting. But Hernandez never faced charges in those cases; McDermott suggests that may have given the standout a sense of being above the law.
“With Aaron, I think you had someone for years who was probably committing crimes,” notes the director. “There was a lot of him suspected of committing a lot of crimes and getting away with them because he was an [all-star] athlete.”
When Hernandez entered the NFL draft after his junior year, several teams passed on him because of questions about his character. The documentary reports scouts gave him the lowest possible score on a scale of “social maturity.” Nevertheless, the Pats under coach Bill Belichick selected him in the fourth round.
Hernandez quickly became an impact player on an outstanding team, paired at tight end with another major talent, Rob Gronkowski. Then, in 2013, came the bombshell—Hernandez’s arrest in the death of Lloyd, whose bullet-ridden body was found about a mile from Aaron’s mansion in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. Ample data points tied Hernandez to the shooting, including cell phone records and DNA on a marijuana blunt found by the body.
“It was a very sloppy murder,” McDermott comments. “There was so much evidence.”
The resulting trial became a media sensation.
“I personally think it was the biggest trial, especially in the sports world, in this century,” the director observes. “In some ways bigger than O.J. Simpson’s, because Aaron Hernandez was an active NFL player. He was a star. O.J. Simpson had been retired for many years. I think that’s what made it so massive, was because he was an active player and no one could have ever thought that he was responsible for something like this.”
To construct his series, McDermott drew from jailhouse audio of Hernandez communicating with friends, family and his fiancée. At times on the phone Hernandez is self-deprecating, and even sweetly asks his mother to get him some Harry Potter books.
“I think [the calls] show us that he was very much a chameleon. He changed the way he talked, depending upon who he was talking to,” McDermott concludes. “If it was his mom, he talked to his mom in a certain way. If it was some buddies from a previous team, he would talk to them in a certain way. I think it really exemplified him being able to be a bit of a shape-shifter.”
In 2015 Hernandez was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Later, he was tried but acquitted in a separate double murder case involving two men Hernandez allegedly gunned down after a tiff at a bar. Just five days after that acquittal, Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell. He had written “John 3:16” in ink on his forehead, a reference to the bible passage that alludes to eternal life.
McDermott interviewed numerous people for the series, including Hernandez’s childhood friend and football teammate, Dennis SanSoucie. SanSoucie recalls Hernandez showed no emotion at the funeral of Aaron’s father, who died suddenly when Hernandez was 16. And SanSoucie sheds more light on Hernandez’s sexuality, revealing they were in a sexual relationship from the 7th to 11th grades.
“Especially in male-dominated sports like football, it’s very hard for someone to come out,” McDermott observes. “It’s very hard for someone to basically be homosexual, and it was obvious that was the case for Dennis and Aaron when they were growing up through late middle school into high school.”
After his death Hernandez’s brain was studied. He was found to have advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition associated with repeated head trauma that has been detected post-mortem in a number of pro football players.
Could CTE, which can produce mood and behavior disorders, explain Hernandez’s disturbing pattern of violence? It’s another unanswerable question.
“It really says a lot about the type of pain and suffering Aaron was probably going through physically,” McDermott comments, adding, “I don’t think they’ve ever been able to tie CTE to someone committing murder, or committing crime. There’s a lot of people that play contact sports that are probably suffering from CTE that haven’t done those types of things. So that’s always my rebuttal when someone tries to blame it on CTE. That’s why I think Aaron and the story is so multifaceted because it could be one of many, many different elements for the reasons why he committed crime.”
McDermott describes his documentary series as “a very layered story.” It’s up for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series at the Emmys.
“We were able to take this beyond true crime and create conversations in America about the entitlement of athletes, sexuality and sports, CTE, double life,” he tells Deadline. “It was part sports doc, it was part pop culture, it was part true crime; then, there was the sexuality angle. I think it was very relatable and approachable to many people. So I’m hoping this one can break through at the Emmys.”
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