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Boston and Beyond

June 5, 2014

Tattoos can be evidence of a crime -- or just cool

HARTFORD, Conn. — Teardrops for murders. Spider webs for prison time. Penal code numbers for crimes committed.

Criminals have long used tattoos as indelible ink on their own bodily rap sheet. And for just as long, police have used tattoos as a way to identify suspects, a distinguishing characteristic to jog a memory or catch the public’s eye.

But only rarely does body art play a pivotal role as evidence posited as proof of wrongdoing.

Prosecutors trying to convict former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez in a pair of homicide cases could try to use the one-time football star’s tattoos against him: They are seeking the artists who worked on Hernandez, saying they could be witnesses.

Criminal justice experts, however, say it’s hard for law enforcement to determine whether someone with a tattoo linked to a kind of crime actually did the deed. As Todd Bettencourt, a tattoo artist in North Attleborough, Massachusetts — the town where Hernandez was living at the time of the killings — said, “some people just get it because it’s cool.”

Much of Hernandez’s upper body is covered in tattoos: The open-mouthed face of a lion sits atop his right bicep, ringed by the words “It’s about the fight in you;” ‘‘1989,” his birth year, spans the fingers of his left hand and a 10-word phrase favored by his father, “If it is to be it is up to me,” runs down his left forearm.

It is Hernandez’s right forearm that has piqued the interest of investigators, though they will not specify which design they have focused on.

Hernandez is accused of fatally shooting two men — Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado — and wounding a third in Boston in July 2012. He also is charged in last year’s killing of Odin Lloyd, whose body was found near Hernandez’s home. And he is being sued by an associate who says Hernandez shot him in the eye in Miami last year.

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