Defendant's lawyers given 'as bad a hand as you can get'
Jeffrey A. Denner knows all too well the challenges of defending someone accused of a monstrous crime.
Just last Friday, a New Hampshire jury rejected his argument that a woman he was defending was insane when she killed two boyfriends because she believed she was an angel sent by God to punish pedophiles.
So the Boston criminal defense lawyer was not surprised when a Middlesex County jury convicted Neil Entwistle yesterday of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of his wife, Rachel, 27, and their 9-month-old daughter, Lillian Rose, after deliberating less than two days.
"In all cases, you're dealt a certain hand, and you're stuck with those cards," he said. "This was a case where, when you were looking at the cards [Entwistle's lawyers] were holding, it wasn't a particularly good hand. As a matter of fact, it was about as bad a hand as you can get. You have a high-profile case, a wildly unpopular defendant, and an absolutely horrendous crime."
Over and over yesterday, members of Boston's tightknit defense bar said the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against Entwistle made it highly unlikely that his lawyers, Elliot Weinstein and Stephanie Page, could win an acquittal.
Perhaps nothing was more damning than Entwistle's decision to take a flight to England without calling authorities after, he told police, he had discovered the bodies of his wife and daughter on Jan. 20, 2006, said defense lawyers.
"Nobody finds their wife and baby daughter dead and doesn't call the cops," said Robert M. Griffin, another defense lawyer in Denner's firm and a former Suffolk County prosecutor.
Add the other elements of the state's case, including testimony that in the days before the slayings Entwistle's computer was used to troll for paid escort services and conduct Google searches on how to kill someone, and the prospects for an acquittal seemed to vanish.
In addition, the lawyers said, it was impossible to overestimate the potential impact of the wall-to-wall pretrial publicity about the murder case.
Shortly after the bodies of Entwistle's wife and daughter were found by police in their rented Hopkinton house on Jan. 22, 2006, the smiling faces of the young family appeared on the cover of People magazine under the headline: "Who killed Rachel and her baby?"
Entwistle's lawyers asked the judge to move the trial to Martha's Vineyard because of the publicity, but their request was rejected.
Many casual courtroom observers were shocked when Entwistle's lawyers called no witnesses after the state rested Monday. But several defense lawyers said that they probably would have done the same thing and that Entwistle's attorneys did their best to challenge the state's case through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.
"There's a general feeling among the defense bar that by presenting witnesses, you often cause the jury to believe that the defense has some burden of proof that it doesn't," said another defense lawyer, James Budreau. "Unless you're going to put on the defendant or you're going to use some diminished capacity defense, what witnesses are you going to put on that will sway a jury in the face of that evidence?"
Weinstein was appointed by the state public defender agency because Entwistle could not afford a private lawyer. Page is an attorney for the agency.
Another Boston lawyer, Robert A. George, said Entwistle might have had a better shot of being acquitted if he allowed his lawyers to mount an insanity defense.
"The crime itself is so horrendous that it immediately makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you think, 'The person who did this must be out of their mind,' " said George, whose recent clients include Christopher M. McCowen, the trash collector convicted in the November 2006 rape and killing of the fashion writer Christa Worthington on Cape Cod. "Think of how the wind gets taken out of the prosecution's sails if you're admitting you committed the crime, but you're not responsible because you weren't in your right mind."
But other lawyers said insanity defenses are seldom successful.
Like every other conviction for first-degree murder in Massachusetts, yesterday's verdict is automatically appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. Denner said that Entwistle's only plausible grounds for appeal concern the decision by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Diane M. Kottmyer to deny the request to move the trial.
Denner said he faced a similar media firestorm in his defense of Sheila LaBarre, who was convicted of killing two boyfriends.
"It's very hard to get an even playing field and fair trial in the context of that feeding frenzy," he said.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.