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ATTLEBORO, Massachusetts -- As Aaron Hernandez heads back into court Wednesday for a probable cause hearing that likely will be continued, legal experts say alleged accomplice Carlos Ortiz likely is pursuing immunity and witness protection.

Hernandez has been charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semipro football player and Hernandez associate who was found shot to death June17. The case will take "a year and a half or two years" to come to trial, according to John Connors, Ortiz's attorney, and his client, with some savvy wrangling by Connors, could be out of jail by then.

MORE:Report says Hernandez focus of probe in 2012 killings

Prosecutors probably will stall on the probable cause hearing today as they wait for a Fall River grand jury to hand down a murder indictment on Hernandez. After that, Hernandez will be arraigned again, with another shot at getting bail. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and has been held without bail since his arrest June 26.

Ortiz, also held without bail, has been charged with possession of an illegal firearm, a charge that could be reduced or erased if he keeps talking, said Gerry Leone, a partner at Nixon Peabody and a former district attorney in Middlesex (Mass.) County.

But with Ortiz's former associates from Bristol, Conn., telling USA TODAY Sports that Ortiz isconsidered "a rat" and "a snitch"and likely to meet an untimely end if he returns to the neighborhood, Leone said he expects that Connors is discussing witness protection.

Connors did not return messages seeking comment on that possibility.

"(Ortiz) would be a candidate for (witness protection), and I'm sure it's being discussed now," Leone said. "But first (prosecutors) have to work out what his status is - is he a cooperating witness, a charged defendant in the case or a confidential informant? Obviously, from what's been made public, he's not a confidential informant."

According to affidavits used for search warrants in Florida and Massachusetts, Ortiz told police what was happening in the car during the early-morning hours before Lloyd was shot to death, and he told police that he was told Hernandez did the shooting.

Ortiz told police that on the drive from Lloyd's house in Boston to Hernandez's home in North Attleborough on June17, the car stopped and the other three men got out to urinate. Ortiz said he heard shots but could not see who fired them. Hernandez and Ernest Wallace, the other alleged accomplice, got back into the car, which sped off, Ortiz said.

Lloyd, shot five times, was found about 14 hours later in an industrial park about a half-mile from Hernandez's home. Ortiz, according to the documents, told police Wallace told him the next day that Hernandez had fired the fatal shots.

Wallace, charged as an accessory after the fact, also is being held without bail.

Leone said prosecutors want to make sure Ortiz can deliver the goods before they make a deal. Ortiz appears to be the closest prosecutors have to an eye witness in a circumstantial case.

"They'll say to him, 'We'll sign you up. We'll put you on our team, but you have to be on our team all the way,'" Leone said. "And if he agrees, his lawyer will say, 'OK, but we want security and safety.'"

Massachusetts started its witness protection program in 2006 to help prosecute gang crimes, but the program has grown to include other types of cases, said Chris Dearborn, a criminal law professor at Suffolk University in Boston and a former public defender and defense attorney.

"A high-profile murder case in which a possible witness has been threatened would be a proper use of the program - if they need him to testify," Dearborn said.

There is one catch, Leone said: The protection is likely to end when the trial does. "He'd then have to go into a federal program - the one everyone is familiar with - and that's rare," Leone said.


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