The recent Netflix miniseries Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (dir. Geno McDermott, 2020) is a disgrace. Loaded to the brim with armchair-psychology fabulism and softball interviews of grinning monsters, it has less to do with football and more to do with covering up the human rights abuses of one of the most ghastly elected officials in southern New England, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts.
As a lifelong resident of Rhode Island, I went into the series with an honest level of interest. Within the first five minutes, the picture excerpts broadcast footage from the Providence CBS affiliate, WPRI 12.
But rather quickly, the film inadvertently showed its cards with uncritical interviews with the head of the jail that incarcerated New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez for the 2013 murder of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd.
Called the “Sheriff from Trumpachusetts” and “the Joe Arpaio of New England,” he is a blow-hard xenophobe facing numerous civil rights violation complaints lodged by migrants he incarcerates and their allies. He recently claimed about a particularly noxious White House advisor “I can assure you, I know Steve Miller, and Steve Miller is not a racist” after the Southern Poverty Law Center released a trove of emails including correspondence between the sheriff and the White House. He also is a member of the National Board of Advisors for FAIR, the infamous white nationalist group founded by the late John Tanton, a prolific racist. Hodgson is presented as a voice of moral authority in the conclusion of the series, offering pithy platitudes about whether Hernandez was a sociopath that exude a sickeningly ironic sense of projection.
Suicide rates at the Bristol County House of Corrections that he oversees are 50% higher since 2006 than in Suffolk County and more than twice that of Essex and Worcester counties, according a WGBH PBS news report in May 2017. In 2018, people at the HoC went on a hunger strike due to the abominable conditions. Sherrie Anne Andre, who is facing trial for a solidarity blockade at the HoC, said in a recent interview “People are not being given prescribed medications for severe illnesses or mental health concerns. People are not having access to affordable phone calls, the charges are ridiculous and they are not able to contact family or community. People cannot afford the things in commissary or access things inside commissary. People experience a lot of verbal abuse from the prison guards as well… People are being denied monthly bleeding products, just basic necessities people don’t have. There isn’t a way for people to cook food even if they were to purchase it from the commissary.”
Hodgson has seen multiple lawsuits brought against him. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice filed suit against Hodgson and the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in May 2017 for refusing to answer a standard public records request regarding his collaboration with ICE. “Sheriff Hodgson appears to think he is above the law,” Sophia Hall of the Lawyers’ Committee said in a statement regarding this first lawsuit.
Another lawsuit complaint, filed in June 2018 by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and Latham & Watkins LLP against Hodgson, needs to be seen to be believed. “For 18 days, from August 18, 2017 to September 5, 2017, Mr. Rivas was jailed by Defendants at the Bristol County Ash Street Jail and Regional Lock-Up (“Ash Street Jail”)—without a legal basis, without any legal process whatsoever, and in violation of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Lunn v. Commonwealth.”
“Defendants knowingly and willfully refused to recognize Mr. Rivas’s federal and state rights or to abide by Lunn, and they prevented Mr. Rivas’s release on bail based on an ICE Detainer and several patently inapplicable federal administrative documents.” (Isn’t that sort of thing called kidnapping?)
I point out this sadistic record because it seems like something worth discussing in a documentary about a person Hodgson incarcerated.
In simple terms, Hodgson tortured Hernandez while exploiting his incarceration for publicity. At one point his defense even filed a motion for him to be relocated, charging Hodgson with violating his due process rights, forwarding his mail to the prosecution, and limiting his ability to have private conversations with his legal team. Whatever mental health challenges the player was dealing with, whether it was caused by internalized homophobia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) catalyzed by football, or other trauma related to his challenging childhood, were exacerbated by his placement in solitary confinement and denial of healthcare.
In a recent interview, Hernandez’s attorney told Entertainment Weekly he regretted participation with the filmmakers:
I thought the biggest problem with it was using [Hernandez’s daughter] Avielle’s voice and photos as a very significant part of the documentary — this was done without her parent’s consent. Her mother did not give permission for this. While I recognize that [the calls] are public record, I still think that it was in poor taste. And whether they can do something legally, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should.
The second issue was that I think they made way too much of his sexuality. It’s funny how in the documentary, they mention how a reporter should never out someone based on their sexuality, yet they decided to make it a center [of] focus of the documentary.
I can understand some people’s curiosity, I just simply did not agree with it. I had voiced that to them on another occasion, and apparently, those pleas fell on deaf ears. I don’t see how any of that fits into the story, and I realize that there will be those that disagree.
The third part that I had an issue with were the allegations about what occurred at the University of Florida [where Hernandez was implicated in a shooting]. That is probably one of the biggest issues that I have with a lot of the coverage. The police found that he had nothing to do with it because there were multiple eyewitnesses that describe an African American as the shooter.
But yet, it doesn’t matter because it’s all part of the storyline that he allegedly shot somebody and got away with it in Florida, so facts be damned.
There’s no doubt that Hernandez was steeped in the ultra-macho homophobic subculture of football, which is infamous for creating a miserable workplace for queer players. Whether he was responsible for the murders he was sentenced for is not a matter I desire to dispute here.
Last September, news broke of an essay by University of Rhode Island Prof. Kyle Kusz that links the popularity of New England quarterback Tom Brady to the upsurge of white supremacist reaction over the election of President Obama. Team owner Robert Kraft is a Trump supporter. The film fails to explore the impact of that white nationalism within the Patriots organization upon a Latinx player, instead opting for sensationalism appealing to the lowest common denominator.
As a queer New Englander who has been a beneficiary of white supremacy, I find this documentary’s portrayal of homosexuality galling. The proposed motivation for his suicide is being outed in the media following his conviction, a shallow Hollywood cinematic trope that stopped being novel when Boys in the Band was still on Broadway. It never seems possible to the filmmakers that he might have been bisexual or, as Dr. Kinsey told us almost eight decades ago, that a substantial portion of men who live the majority of their lives in stable heterosexual relationships have one or multiple homosexual relationships as youths. This is the psycho-sexual analysis of a 1980’s soap opera that successfully Others its subject as a some sort of barely-coherent behemoth, painting him as a street thug caricature.
We might never know the exact motivation that compelled Hernandez’s mortal decision. However, whether Hodgson was responsible for making Hernandez suicidal seems completely within bounds considering incarcerated people are still dying by suicide in his cages.