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Matthew Barrows: Aldon Smith's legal troubles bring unfair comparison to Aaron Hernandez

Published: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 7C
Last Modified: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 - 7:14 am

SANTA CLARA – In its story about the gun charges against 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, the popular website Pro Football Talk mistakenly referred to Smith as "Hernandez" on the second reference before correcting the error.

As in Aaron Hernandez, the ex-New England Patriots tight end who was indicted by a grand jury earlier this year in the execution-style slaying of Odin Lloyd and who also is being investigated in connection with another homicide in Massachusetts.

There have been comparisons between the two on talk radio and in the anything-goes comments for online stories, and you can see why a writer might make that Freudian slip.

After all, Smith has been making news for the wrong reasons. He was arrested in September on suspicion of DUI for the second time in as many years. He's missed the 49ers' last two games after checking into a substance abuse treatment facility. He's involved in nearly as many court cases as he has sacks this season.

Smith has been foolish, stupid, self-destructive, reckless. But he's not Aaron Hernandez. Not even close.

The three felony charges filed against Smith on Wednesday were accompanied by media photos of the powerful rifles and charged language from the Santa Clara County district attorney.

Smith, however, is not a gun smuggler. He didn't acquire them in some back alley or on the black market; he bought them legally in Arizona.

You can buy two of the rifles in California. The difference is that in California a "bullet button," which prevents a spent magazine from being quickly replaced with another, is added so they don't fall under the law that bans assault weapons.

The third rifle, an ArmaLite AR-10, is banned by name under California's gun law. But gun store owners said Thursday that nearly identical rifles made by different manufacturers are available in their stores as long as they have a bullet button.

The charges against Smith can lead to more than four years in county jail.

Mike Vitiello, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law, said 90 percent of cases are plea-bargained and that prosecutors often will be aggressive with their initial charge.

"It does seem like piling on," Vitiello said. "You've got a guy that's already brought low by his DUI issue and his recent crash. But DA's typically overcharge with an eye towards getting a favorable plea bargain."

The same district attorney was criticized for not prosecuting another 49ers linebacker, Ahmad Brooks. According to court reports, Brooks struck a teammate three times with a Heineken bottle this summer, opening a gash on the victim's head. The decision not to file assault charges led to questions about whether the district attorney's office was too soft when it came to high-profile cases.

Is it, as Vitiello said, piling on?

Smith is in a treatment facility, facing DUI charges. And he's also facing a suspension by the NFL. Asked Thursday if he expected Smith to play again this season, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said, "I don't know that yet."

Smith also is named in two civil lawsuits relating to the house party that led to shots being fired and the discovery of the illegal rifles.

Smith didn't hurt anyone in the June 2012 incident; he was the one who got stabbed.

Foolhardy, troubled, young? Yes.

Gun runner and hardened criminal? No.

Editor's note: This story was changed Oct. 11 to correct a reference to "bullet buttons." Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and arvhives at and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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