ATTLEBORO, Mass. - Remember when Aaron Hernandez was shoved to the floor in the foyer of his mansion, cuffed and dragged into the street in front of television cameras, charged with murder and arraigned?
Ever since that stunning day, oh, how we all have criticized the company he kept.
He's a wanna-be thug with all the ink of a gang-banger but none of the street cred, we said -- a guy with a $40 million contract who, truth be told, probably wanted to be putting out contracts instead.
We ripped him for his inner circle, a ragtag collection of Einsteins whose most brilliant plan to outsmart cops was using a rental car - but, of course, leaving the keys in the victim's pocket.
These guys couldn't spell CSI if you spotted them the "C" and the "S."
But before we criticize Hernandez for hanging with goons instead of Gronk, for chilling with buffoons instead of Brady, realize this: Those same characters might help him beat this murder rap - and any other charges and indictments that likely are coming down soon.
While part of it was show, Hernandez's defense attorneys acted Thursday like LeBron James, pulled down on a breakaway layup. They came to court hoping the small-town prosecutors would forget to bring along an indictment and Hernandez's attorneys would get to take a box cutter to sworn statements and search warrant affidavits.
"Defense counsel was looking forward to testing the Commonwealth's evidence, something that has not been done to date," Hernandez attorney Michael Fee said. "We were looking forward to cross-examining witnesses and their credibility."
I'm not sure whether he then scratched his chin or wiped away drool.
Because for all those surveillance cameras that stalked the Hernandez crew to Boston and back, for all the text messages and phone calls and bubblegum DNA that point to the former New England Patriots star being involved in the murder of his buddy Odin Lloyd, prosecutors still don't have the murder weapon or an eye witness.
And the one guy who has been chirping, alleged accomplice Carlos Ortiz, will be a cross-examination crash dummy.
He's a petty criminal - a thief and window-breaker who likes to slap around his girlfriends, knock them up and stiff them for child support. Oh, and a week or so before the shooting he admitted to his probation officer that he was doping up with marijuana, cocaine and PCP, according to police. And just to prove it, he peed dirty.
So, just days after a stoned Ortiz was probably seeing President Obama dance the Macarena in a feet pajamas, he was trying to tell cops what he saw in the early-morning darkness of an abandoned industrial park.
Does he sound like a credible witness - especially as he stands with the most minor charge, a Let's-Make-A-Deal illegal possession of a firearm?
Or a guy who will say anything to save himself?
Hernandez and Wallace have been indicted, but Ortiz, now known as "the snitch" in Bristol, has not. And although he's pocket-lint broke, Ortiz was hooked up with the Perry Mason of public defenders, probably a perk for talking.
Hernandez's team of million-dollar attorneys will be playing rock-scissors-paper for months to win the chance to cross-examine Ortiz sometime in 2015.
The Hernandez camp looks at it this way: If you're accused of murder and you could pick the double-crossing rat, Ortiz would be the guy, because he'd probably come to court on a stolen bike.
Remember, too, that when Ortiz first appeared in front of a judge after being hauled from the Bristol home of Hernandez's uncle, he wept at his extradition hearing. Matlock probably could make this guy recant on the stand before the first commercial break.
Do prosecutors want to bet their case on him?
Okay, then how about Ernest Wallace, who was indicted Thursday for being an accessory after the fact? Wallace is a career criminal, who already has done short stretches inside. The seven years he's looking at probably won't be enough to get him to flip on the guy who has been his meal ticket - and likely is paying for Wallace's high-priced defense lawyer. Hernandez, after all, brought Wallace to New England, put him up in a condo, took him clubbing, rented cars for him and slipped him cash.
It was Wallace's dream job - muscle for an NFL star.
As he left the courtroom after his arraignment in Attleboro, Wallace mouthed "I'm innocent" to a female supporter. Apparently, that's about as loud as he cares to say it.
So, he isn't going to be any help to prosecutors.
Hernandez's cousin, Tanya Cummings-Singleton, doesn't appear as if she wants to be Witness of the Month, either. Prosecutors gave her immunity and she still isn't talking, according to the district attorney. When they offered a deal, she told investigators to take a leap into a Bristol lake (where they didn't find the gun). She chose loyalty, an hour a day in the yard and three squares -- indefinitely.
There's also Shayanna Jenkins, Hernandez's fiancée and mother of his child. Prosecutors say she started lying from the get-go, telling them she went to bed early that night and didn't know where Hernandez went or with whom. But, investigators say, she is shown on the surveillance video, welcoming Wallace and Ortiz to the house when they came to pick up her man and take Lloyd for his last ride.
Prosecutors also believe she ditched the murder weapon (a .45 caliber Glock that hasn't been found) and a .22 caliber weapon that was recovered near Hernandez's home and appeared to be "recently discarded." Ortiz and Wallace were seen on surveillance footage carrying a similar gun, which Ortiz called a "deuce deuce" to police.
Before it's all over, you wonder if the Hernandez child will be mailing crayon drawings to both parents, c/o of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for a stretch.
And look at the buddies/victims: There's no evidence that Lloyd was a bad guy, but Jenkins labeled him a drug dealer from the minute cops mentioned his death. The defense might put his reputation on trial.
Alexander Bradley, another former friend, says Hernandez shot him in the eye in Florida during an argument in a car after the two had partied at a strip club in February. He's a convicted drug dealer who first told police he didn't know who shot him, then said it was two men, black and Hispanic.
Bradley has filed a lawsuit, but could end up as more legal road kill for Hernandez's attorneys.
So, say what you want about Hernandez, but when it comes to family confidants, friends, former friends and fiancées, he sure knows how to pick 'em.
And, in the end, it just might help him get off.