By Scott Malone
FALL RIVER, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The judge hearing the murder trial of former National Football League star Aaron Hernandez declined on Wednesday to issue a gag order prohibiting lawyers involved in the case from speaking about it publicly.
But Associate Justice Susan Garsh reminded prosecutors and defense attorneys that Massachusetts trial rules still place significant limits on what public statements they can make about an ongoing criminal proceeding.
"The rules of professional conduct coupled by admonitions from the court render it unnecessary to issue an order," Garsh said at a hearing in Massachusetts Superior Court in Fall River.
"Failure to issue an order at this time should not be deemed to constitute any endorsement by this court of counsel trying this case in the media or allowing their investigators to do so," she said.
The case of the former New England Patriots tight end had drawn intense media interest even before his arrest after the June 17 shooting of his friend Odin Lloyd in an industrial area near his North Attleborough, Massachusetts, home.
Hernandez, 23, was a star player with a $41 million contract when he was arrested on June 26 and charged in the death of Lloyd, a semi-professional football player. The Patriots dropped Hernandez a few hours after his arrest.
He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which include one count of murder and several firearms-related offenses.
'I PLAYED FOOTBALL'
At the hearing, a handcuffed Hernandez was brought in wearing a suit and tie - more formal attire than in prior court appearances. He huddled briefly with his lawyers before the proceedings began.
He addressed the court for the first time since entering his not guilty plea, assuring the judge that he saw no conflict of interest in the fact that one of his defense attorneys worked at the same area law firm as the wife of a prosecutor on the case.
Hernandez answered some simple questions, and when asked his profession, replied: "I played football."
Prosecutors contend that Hernandez summoned Lloyd to his home in North Attleborough on June 17, a few nights after the two argued at a nightclub, because Lloyd had been speaking with people Hernandez disliked.
On the night of the shooting, Hernandez and two other men drove Lloyd to an isolated industrial park, while Lloyd sent his sister text messages telling her who he was with, a series of messages that ended "just so you know," prosecutors said.
When the men arrived at the industrial park, prosecutors say Hernandez shot Lloyd five times, twice while standing over his victim as he lay on the ground.
Hernandez's attorneys have described the local prosecutors' case as weak and circumstantial, noting that they have not presented the gun Hernandez is accused of using in the killing.
Hernandez is being held in Bristol County Jail while awaiting trial. The other men who were in the car that night, Carlos Orbitz and Ernest Wallace, have been charged with accessory to murder after the fact.
After the hearing, Hernandez' attorney Charles Rankin said he was looking forward to the trial.
"Aaron is fine," Rankin told reporters. "We are looking forward to having a trial before a jury of his peers."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)