FALL RIVER, Mass. -- Former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez was found guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder in a deadly late-night shooting and was sentenced to life in prison, sealing the downfall of an athlete who once had a $40 million contract and a standout career ahead of him.
Hernandez, 25, looked to his right, pursed his lips and sat down after the jury forewoman announced him guilty in the slaying of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old landscaper and semipro football player who was dating the sister of Hernandez's fiancée. The conviction carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole and automatically triggered an appeal to Massachusetts' highest court.
No date for that appeal has been set.
Hernandez's mother, Terri, and his fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, cried and gasped when they heard the verdict, and Lloyd's mother also cried. Jenkins wept on his mother's shoulder. Hernandez, his eyes red, mouthed to them: "Be strong. Be strong."
Hernandez was also found guilty on firearms and ammunition charges. The jury deliberated for 36 hours over seven days before rendering its verdict.
Some 135 witnesses were called to the stand during the nine-week trial.
"The jury found that he was just a man who committed a brutal murder,'' District Attorney Thomas Quinn said. "The fact that he was a professional athlete meant nothing in the end.''
Defense lawyers left the courthouse without commenting.
Hernandez was initially taken to the state's Cedar Junction prison, a maximum-security facility less than a 4-mile drive from Gillette Stadium, where he once caught touchdown passes from Tom Brady in front of tens of thousands of fans. He was to be processed there and eventually taken to Souza Baranowski prison in Shirley, another maximum-security institution, according to Darren Duarte, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.
Lloyd's mother, Ursula Ward, was one of six people who gave victim impact statements after Hernandez was convicted, saying she forgives anyone who had a hand in her son's death.
She said she felt her heart stop beating for a moment on the day she laid Lloyd to rest.
"I felt like I wanted to go into the hole with my son," she said.
Olivia Thibou, Lloyd's younger sister, called Wednesday a great day but also "an awful, painful day.''
"At the age of 25, I was asked to write my brother's eulogy, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," she said.
For reasons that were never made clear to the jury, Lloyd was shot six times in the middle of the night on June 17, 2013, in a deserted industrial park near Hernandez's home in North Attleborough.
Police almost immediately zeroed in on Hernandez because they found in Lloyd's pocket the key to a car the NFL player had rented. Within hours of Hernandez's arrest, the Patriots cut the former Pro Bowl player, who was considered one of the top tight ends in the game.
Prosecutors presented a wealth of evidence that Hernandez was with Lloyd at the time he was killed, including home security video from Hernandez's house, witness testimony and cellphone records that tracked Lloyd's movements.
Hernandez's lawyer, James Sultan, acknowledged for the first time during closing arguments that Hernandez was there when Lloyd was killed.
But the attorney pinned the shooting on two of Hernandez's friends, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, saying his client was a "23-year-old kid" who witnessed a shocking crime and didn't know what to do. Wallace and Ortiz will stand trial later.
All 12 jurors and three alternates spoke to reporters Wednesday, saying they were shocked by the defense admission that Hernandez was at the scene of the killing -- an admission that they said helped confirm that he was guilty.
They also said they found April 1 testimony by Patriots owner Robert Kraft especially compelling.
Prosecutors have suggested Lloyd may have been killed because he knew too much about Hernandez's alleged involvement in a deadly 2012 drive-by shooting in Boston. But they were not allowed to tell the jury that because the judge said it was speculation.
As a result, they never offered a motive beyond saying Hernandez appeared angry with Lloyd at a nightclub two nights before the killing.
Hernandez faces further legal trouble: He is awaiting trial on murder charges in the drive-by shooting, in which he is accused of gunning down two men over a spilled drink at a nightclub. Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder in that case. No date in that trial has been set.
The jurors who convicted Hernandez say the judge spoke to them privately after they rendered their verdict and told them other allegations against him. The jurors said the information reaffirmed their feeling that they'd made the right decision.
In the Lloyd killing, the defense argued that investigators fixated on Hernandez because of his celebrity and conducted a shoddy investigation in their zeal to confirm their suspicions.
Prosecutors said Hernandez organized the killing, summoned his two friends to help carry it out, and drove Lloyd and the others to the secluded spot in the industrial park. During closing arguments, prosecutors also accused Hernandez of pulling the trigger, though under the law it was not necessary to prove who fired the shots to convict him.
Security video from inside Hernandez's home showed him holding what appeared to be a gun less than 10 minutes after Lloyd was killed. The surveillance system also captured Hernandez, Wallace and Ortiz relaxing at his home hours after Lloyd was shot, hanging out in the basement "man cave," lounging by the pool and cuddling with Hernandez's baby daughter.
Hernandez was an All-American out of the University of Florida who was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round in 2010.
Brandon Spikes, a former teammate with the Patriots, was one of several players who weighed in on the verdict via Twitter after it was announced.
IM CONFUSED ABOUT THE JUSTICE SYSTEM THESE DAYS !!!
— BrandonSpikes51 (@BrandonSpikes51) April 15, 2015
The Patriots declined to comment on the verdict.
David Nelson, a former teammate of Hernandez's at Florida, tweeted his surprise.
I just can't wrap my head around this. For the first time, it's real. That's not the kid I knew. I just can't understand it...
— David Nelson (@DavidNelson86) April 15, 2015
Meanwhile, the mayor of Bristol, Connecticut, Hernandez's hometown, sympathized with Lloyd's family and expressed disappointment at the former NFL star's downfall.
"I feel bad for the Odin Lloyd family," Mayor Ken Cockayne told the Hartford Courant. "They lost someone close to them.
"It's too bad someone who had it all and was the idol of so many young children has crashed those dreams of the youngsters.
"It just shows that no matter who you are, you still have to live within the law and respect others."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.