BOSTON - The first time police went to the home of Neil and Rachel Entwistle, it was after they received a worried phone call from Rachel’s mother, who had not been able to reach her daughter for two days.
Police took a quick look around but left when they saw nothing amiss. Neither Rachel nor the couple’s 9-month-old daughter appeared to be home.
The next day, police went into the house again. This time, they followed an odor to the master bedroom, where they found mother and daughter dead, with baby Lillian Rose wrapped in her mother’s arms. Both were covered by a thick white comforter.
Neil Entwistle, a British man, was later convicted of murder in the 2006 shootings of his wife and daughter.
Now the state Supreme Judicial Court will determine whether Entwistle deserves a new trial.
Entwistle’s lawyer, Stephen Paul Maidman, argues that evidence taken from the couple’s rented house in Hopkinton was seized illegally because police did not have the right to search the home without a warrant.
“On the two occasions when the police entered the defendant’s house, the police did not have objective knowledge of an emergency inside the house or have objective knowledge that there was a person inside the home in need of immediate aid,’’ Maidman argued in court papers.
Prosecutors, however, say police were justified as “community caretakers’’ to go into the home after receiving reports from worried family members and friends.
In court documents, prosecutors say that when police went into the house the first time, “it was reasonable to believe that the missing family was within the house and in need of immediate assistance.’’
They cite the family’s unexplained absences, Rachel’s failure to show up for plans she had, unanswered phone calls and knocks at the door, and the barking of an apparently neglected dog.
Prosecutors argue that the second search of the house was justified because the circumstances “had become even more alarming,’’ as no one had heard from the family for three days, local hospitals were checked and a police search for the family’s car had been fruitless.
Before Entwistle’s trial, a judge rejected a defense motion to suppress based on similar arguments.
Maidman argues in the appeal that the two warrantless searches of the house violated the state and federal constitutions. He said evidence seized from the house during the searches and any evidence later obtained by police as a result of that should have been suppressed.
Police are allowed to enter a home without a warrant if they have an “objectively reasonable basis’’ to believe there may be someone inside who is injured or in immediate danger, said Suffolk University Law School professor Christopher Dearborn. Dearborn said he believes Entwistle has made a strong argument that police did not have enough evidence in this case to believe an emergency existed.
“The set of facts here may have given rise to concerns, but it also seems equally susceptible to innocuous explanations’’ as to what had happened to the Entwistles, Dearborn said.
“There is a very compelling argument that this was an illegal search,’’ he said.
The case drew widespread media attention.
Entwistle, of Worksop, England, met Rachel, of Kingston, Mass., at college in England in 1999. The couple lived in England for a while after their daughter’s birth, then moved to the United States four months before the killings.
Prosecutors said Entwistle killed his wife and daughter after becoming despondent over his failure to find a job and accumulating debt.
Entwistle also argues in his appeal that Judge Diane Kottmyer did not thoroughly question potential jurors to determine whether they were biased against him.
The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments April 6.