In the wake of the new Netflix documentary, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, Aaron’s former fiancé, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, has also become a major topic of conversation. In 2013, Aaron, a tight end for the New England Patriots, turned the NFL on its head when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and five firearm violations. In 2015, Aaron was convicted of killing Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional football player and boyfriend of Shayanna’s sister, Shaneah Jenkins. At the age of 27, three years after his conviction, Aaron was found dead in his prison cell by suicide at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts, which overturned his conviction ruling.
During his trial Shayanna publicly stood by Aaron, despite the wedge it put between her and her sister. Since the documentary has aired, Shayanna has even taken the time to thank her social media followers for their support. She wrote, “I wanted to let all of you sweet sweet souls know I have tried to read every message sent on IG and through email (positive and negative)… The amount of support and positive energy is again unreal! I’m sure you will all understand how imperative it is to take some time away from social media.”
Aaron and Shayanna were highschool sweethearts. They grew up together in Bristol, Connecticut and before he died, they planned to get married in a California ceremony in 2014. Aaron proposed to Shayanna in 2012 after she gave birth to his only child, their daughter, Avielle Hernandez.
In a lot of ways, Shayanna embodies the most tragic of love stories. She is a black woman who is forced to endure the trial of her partner. Her love is tested and criticized publicly because circumstance has placed her in this situation. So as his lover, she also stands trial and is burdened with holding both Aaron and their daughter up together by herself. It’s tragic because Aaron’s actions and the justice system has yanked their family apart and kept them from truly being a family.
African-American men are imprisoned in state and federal institutions six times the rate of white men, and about 25 times that of black women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Latinos aren’t far behind in this disparity as they are imprisoned 1.4 times the rate of whites and 21 percent are incarcerated.
We don’t condemn Shayanna for supporting her convicted fiance because we know women like her. We are familiar with the drawn and tired faces of women and mothers who hope their beloved is granted freedom. At the core of her situation, Shayanna is left a single mother. Her partner, whom she counted on as a provider, was not only imprisoned but drained them of legal fees which took an emotional and financial strain on her, especially after his death. But as a community, we are able to both acknowledge the pain and toxicity of circumstances like Shayanna’s while sympathizing with her and her daughter. We share this mental duality because we know and have seen how prison reverberates throughout a home. We understand the rebuilding Shayanna has had to do when she received no money from the NFL after Aaron’s suicide because his contract was severed in 2013 due to his arrest.
In our community, we tend to glorify this trope of being a ‘ride or die’ without really highlighting the small deaths and impact Black women endure along these romantic journeys. Shayanna sacrificed a lot simply by being in the courtroom. Her willingness to show him favor publicly despite what he was convicted of, especially concerning her own family, was a direct declaration of her love and loyalty to him. Her undying faithfulness to him cost her the relationship she had with her sister. When asked about her decision to choose Aaron essentially over Odin and her Shaneah, Shayanna defended her actions during a 2018 interview in the documentary, “Aaron Hernandez Uncovered.”
“This is someone you love and you think about,’’ she said. “I wasn’t going to let him experience it alone. I was going to stick by his side every step of the way.’’ In 2017, Aaron was put on trial again, this time for the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado and Shayanna showed up to those hearings as well. He was later acquitted of those two murders.
This was the same year he killed himself, and rumors about Aaron’s homosexuality was brought to light by alleged former lover Dennis SanSoucie, his quarterback and close friend at Bristol Central High. Dennis claimed they experimented sexually and that Aaron was afraid to come out to his father. When the rumors came out, Shayanna addressed them.
“I wish I had known how he felt,” she wrote. “Just so we could have talked about it. I wouldn’t have disowned him, I would have been supportive.”
It was revealed that Hernandez had been suffering from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. Since his medical condition was discovered, Shayanna has sued the NFL for $20 million.
In the suicide letters, he left behind for his daughter and Shayanna he calls his fiance his soulmate and an angel.
“I want you to love life and know I’m always with you,” he said in the letter. “I told you what was coming indirectly! I love you so much and know [you] are an angel…Tell my story fully but never think anything besides how much I love you. This was the supreme almighty’s plan, not mine! I love you! Let Avi know how much I love her!”
Although the two were never married, Shayanna took his last name after his death. After the trial, she downsized to a home in Rhode Island. In 2018, she wrote a lengthy Instagram post on the anniversary of Aaron’s suicide.
“A year today….. I remember getting a call saying you had passed,” she wrote. “Dropping the phone and crying uncontrollably I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to get to you as fast as I knew how so you weren’t alone anymore. This was by far the worst day of my life especially when things were looking better…I was / still am so confused and wish I could ask you tons of questions – not just for me but for our daughter… We love you very very much and you are and will continue to be missed ❤️#RIPAaron#81#hisdaughterskeeper #oursuperhero.”
It’s safe to say Shayanna has moved on with her life. In 2018, she welcomed a baby girl with her new fiance Dino Guilmette, who is not only a bar owner but played football with Aaron at the University of Florida. Shayanna is proof that new beginnings can flourish even after the days you thought life was over. She is a reminder of strength and endurance. Her story rings true for many women, including the tragedy, and the steps she has taken toward a better future.