By Elizabeth Barber
BOSTON (Reuters) - A Massachusetts judge refused to toss out murder and firearms charges against ex-New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez in last summer's killing of a semi-professional soccer player.
Bristol Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh in a ruling late Thursday rejected the defense's argument that prosecutors lack probable cause to charge Hernandez in the execution-style slaying of Odin Lloyd, 27, near Hernandez's home in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Boston.
Hernandez, 24, has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including five counts related to illegal firearms possession. His trial is set for Jan. 9.
A tight end and one of the league's top franchises, Hernandez had been a rising NFL star before he lost his $41 million contract with the New England Patriots.
Prosecutors said that Hernandez was at a nightclub with Lloyd in June 2013 when "something happened at the club that caused Hernandez to arm himself," going outside to get a firearm from his rental car.
Prosecutors argued that Hernandez and two alleged accomplices picked up Lloyd a few days later in the car and drove him to an industrial park. About an hour later, Lloyd was dead, prosecutors say.
Hernandez was seen at his home both before and after Lloyd's death holding what looked like a firearm and ammunition for a .45 caliber pistol, the kind of weapon used in the crime. A gun was later found at an apartment Hernandez had in Franklin, Massachusetts, according to Garsh's ruling.
Lloyd was at the apartment one night when Hernandez took two women there after being in a club. Lloyd "observed all that transpired" and "possessed negative personal information about Hernandez," the ruling said.
Garsh said that the grand jury, which returned six indictments against Hernandez in August 2013, did not need evidence to show probable cause that Hernandez, not the other two men, shot Lloyd.
What the grand jury needed, and did have, was evidence showing that Hernandez "participated in some meaningful way in the commission of the offense" and showed "extreme atrocity or cruelty," Garsh said.
The judge also said prosecutors were not required by law to have a motive in order to charge him with murder.
Hernandez is also accused in the 2012 killing of two men after a fight over a spilled drink at a Boston nightclub.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Susan Heavey)