BOSTON — In death, Aaron Hernandez may not be a guilty man in the eyes of the law.
Under a long-standing Massachusetts legal principle, courts customarily vacate the convictions of defendants who die before their appeals are heard.
Hernandez, a former NFL star, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez's finance.
Massachusetts prison officials said Hernandez was found hanging in his prison cell early Wednesday. His death came less than a week after his acquittal on murder charges in the shooting deaths of two men in Boston in 2012.
Hernandez's attorneys can move to have the conviction in the Lloyd case erased, said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association.
"For all intent and practical purposes, Aaron Hernandez will die an innocent man, but the court of public opinion may think differently," said Healy.
The legal principle is called "abatement ab initio," or "from the beginning." It holds that is unfair to the defendant or to his or her survivors if a conviction is allowed to stand before they had a chance to clear their names on appeal, in case some kind or error or other injustice was determined to have occurred at trial, Healy said.
"It's a surprising result for the public to understand," he added.
All first-degree murder convictions in Massachusetts trigger an automatic appeal. Hernandez's appeal had not yet been heard by the state's high court.
Gregg Miliote, a spokesman for the district attorney's office which prosecuted the Lloyd case, would not comment on the possibility of the conviction being vacated.
Removing a conviction after the death of a high-profile defendant is not without precedent in recent state history.
The child molestation conviction of former Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan, a key figure in the clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston archdiocese, was vacated after he was beaten to death in 2003 in his cell at the same Massachusetts maximum-security prison.
John Salvi, who was convicted of killing two abortion clinic workers and wounding five other people during a shooting rampage in Brookline in 1994, also had his convictions tossed after he killed himself in prison.