BOSTON — Aaron Hernandez’s death was ruled a suicide on Thursday by Massachusetts officials, who also said that his brain would be released to an academic center that has researched the links between brain disease and football.
The ruling appeared to end a surreal standoff that arose a day after the death of Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who was serving a life sentence for a 2013 murder. Jose Baez, a lawyer who had represented Hernandez, called a news conference on Thursday in front of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and accused the state of “illegally” withholding Hernandez’s brain.
By donating Hernandez’s brain, his family could be seeking to find if he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma that has been found in about 100 former N.F.L. players. If Hernandez is found to have had the disease, the diagnosis could be used to help apply for money from a class-action settlement between the N.F.L. and former retired players, or in other legal proceedings.
Symptoms of C.T.E. include memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, depression and suicidal tendencies.
For now, C.T.E. can only be diagnosed in autopsies. Several former star players, including Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters, committed suicide and were later found to have C.T.E. Although those players were all older than 40, the disease has been found in former athletes in their 20s.
The body of Hernandez, 27, was discovered early Wednesday, tied with a bedsheet to the window of his prison cell in Shirley, Mass. Joseph D. Early Jr., the district attorney for Worcester County, released a statement on Thursday that said the cause of death was asphyxia by hanging.
Hernandez, who had been acquitted days earlier of a 2012 double murder, had been alone in his cell since 8 p.m. Tuesday, the statement said. His body was discovered about seven hours later, along with a Bible and three handwritten notes.
Earlier on Thursday, Baez, who represented Hernandez during the double murder trial, said it was too soon to determine whether his death was a suicide.
“We don’t make that call,” Baez said, “until everything is done.”
Baez said Hernandez’s family wanted to donate his brain to the C.T.E. Center at Boston University, which has studied the disease for years. The center, which has an extensive brain bank, has produced much of the leading research on the disease and its link to repeated head trauma.
“We had made arrangements for Boston University to come at 10 a.m. to pick up Aaron’s brain,” Baez said, but he added that the medical examiner’s office had decided “at the last minute” to hold it longer. He also threatened to take legal action to force the release of the athlete’s brain.
State officials said the brain would be released in due time, and Early’s ruling came several hours later.
Hernandez was a rising star with a $40 million contract with the Patriots when, in 2013, he was accused of murdering a friend, Odin Lloyd, after an argument at a nightclub. Hernandez was convicted of that murder and accused of a 2012 double killing. He was acquitted of murder in that second case just last week — which made his apparent suicide all the more of a shock.
Baez said he hoped the study of Hernandez’s brain would help add to the body of knowledge about C.T.E. and shed new light on what exactly happened to him.
“We need to leave no stone unturned, and we need to specifically do everything possible to find out what happened,” Baez said on Thursday. “Why not? Doesn’t everyone want to know?”
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