Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Show of Reason

Neil Entwistle is back in Boston. Today he'll be arraigned in Framingham District Court on two charges of first-degree murder, and the question has turned to whether he can receive a fair trial. I'll guarantee that Entwistle will plead to avoid trial; but just for the sake of argument, let's examine the question.

The day after police discovered the bodies of Rachel, 27, and 9-month-old Lillian in their Hopkinton home, Neil Entwistle told a detective that he had found his wife and daughter murdered when he returned home from a two-hour trip to Staples. He claimed that he grabbed a kitchen knife to kill himself, then reconsidered and instead fled to Europe. This conflicts with what Entwistle apparently told his father, that he had only been gone for 20 minutes and that he had called police. He had not.

The murder weapon was a .22-caliber revolver taken from his father-in-law's pistol collection that had Entwistle's fingerprints on the handle and his wife's DNA on the muzzle. (The technical term is "blowback." When someone is shot point blank, the rush of air subsequent to the bullet's exit can suck drops of blood inside the gun barrel.)

Police searched Entwistle's computers and found that he had used the internet to research killing and suicide. He had also attempted several internet businesses that failed, including pornography and penis enlargement websites. The family was heavily in debt, with a $498 per month leased BMW and a $2,700 per month lease on the house in Hopkinton into which they had moved only ten days before the killings.

The day after Entwistle's wife and child were murdered, he drove to Logan International Airport and flew to England. He did not attend his wife's and daughter's funeral. When he was first arrested in England last week, he indicated that he would contest extradition.

The question is, at what point does a presumption of innocence become absurd?

Like I said, Entwistle is going to plead. This case won't go to trial. (Remember who said that first.) But in the meantime, his lawyer is going to drum a ruckus about the impossibility of a fair trial and he's got a point. Most people have heard about the story, and virtually anyone who's heard it will have decided that Entwistle is guilty. It's obvious. In a case like this, if it were even possible to give Entwistle the benefit of the doubt, what would be a compelling reason for doing so?

We afford criminal defendants the benefit of the doubt because prosecution is a serious matter. We're talking about using 12 laymen to suspend another man's liberty, to remove him from home and family and lock him inside a cement prison for a significant portion of his life. We want to make damn sure we've got the right guy, and we achieve that by making the prosecution tie every loose end. If they can't, he walks. And that's fair because those dozen people are supposed to be a jury of his peers; they're supposed to put themselves in his position and think, "What if I were sitting there, facing all this damning evidence, and I didn't commit the crime?"

This isn't that. This is a man who had motive, means, opportunity, who is incriminated by forensic evidence and who has behaved as if he is guilty at almost every opportunity. This is a kid standing in front of a cookie jar with his hand stuck inside that cookie jar, with cookie crumbs on his shirt and still chewing, but shaking his head and mumbling, "I didn't eat any cookies!"

The presumption of evidence is a crucial construct of our criminal justice system intended to facilitate justice. Explain to me exactly what practical purpose that presumption would serve in the case of Neil Entwistle.


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