The Massachusetts murder trial involving former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez serves as a reminder of how tattoos can be used to help convict defendants.

Using tattoos in criminal trials isn’t a new concept. They often serve as circumstantial evidence that can help convince a jury of facts that aren’t easy to prove.

For example, gang tattoos are often introduced into evidence because they can show gang allegiance or rank. Some gang members even get tattoos to symbolize crimes they’ve committed or even time spent in prison. A lot of these symbols are well-known to law enforcement and can be used to prove to a jury that an individual has gang ties if he or she denies it.

Tattoos are also used as evidence when someone can be identified by a particularly memorable tattoo. For example, if someone who commits a crime has an unusual facial tattoo or something unique on a hand or forearm, that might be the number one thing eyewitnesses remember about the individual. Experts say that it’s easier for someone to remember a unique tattoo than it is to remember someone’s actual facial features.

In the Hernandez case, prosecutors are pointing to two of the many tattoos covering the defendant as significant. They say the tattoos are essentially journal entries marked into the defendant’s skin to memorialize the murders he committed.

One of the tattoos depicts a semi-automatic pistol with a single spent shell casing and a wisp of smoke. Prosecutors say it relates to the shooting of the defendant’s former friend, which was done with one shot from a semi-automatic. The other tattoo is of a 6-shot revolver with only five rounds in the chamber and the phrase “God forgives” underneath. Prosecutors say that it relates to the murders the defendant is accused of committing by firing five shots from a revolver into a car.

It’s also important to note that there are times judges have allowed defendants to cover tattoos that might prejudice a jury against a defendant. For example, “white power” or Nazi symbolism might prejudice a jury into thinking the defendant is prone to violence.

If you have visible tattoos or tattoos that could be interpreted as criminal evidence, it’s important to discuss the issue with your criminal defense attorney early in order to plan for any requests from the prosecution to use them as evidence.

Source: Boston Herald, “McGovern: Aaron Hernandez’s tattoos may open legal Pandora’s box,” Bob McGovern, March 16, 2017

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Robert W. Keller - author

Robert W. Keller practices exclusively in the areas of criminal defense law, and has been doing so since 1992. Clients are represented throughout the State of Wisconsin in both State and Federal Courts.