Three Murder Trials, One Small Town

For the past month, three men in a small town have been on trial in separate, horrific domestic violence cases that have left four people dead. The trio could be called the "Bad Husbands Club." Neil Entwistle, convicted last week of murdering his wife and daughter, could be president.

In an odd coincidence, all three trials were taking place at the same time in one courthouse in the town of Woburn, Mass., population 37,000, located 10 miles northwest of Boston.

"On any given day, it's not unusual to have three murder trials, gang bangers, that kind of thing. But to have three trials of this kind of crime with these kinds of details, I've never seen that before," said Michael Sullivan, clerk of courts for Middlesex County Superior Courthouse.

The courtrooms are identical — green walls, an American flag placed just so and rows of wooden benches.

In Courtroom 530, James Keown, 34, is accused of killing his wife by spiking her Gatorade with antifreeze. Keown is a former Missouri radio host who, prosecutors say, wanted to get his hands on his wife's $250,000 life insurance policy. Julie Keown died on Sept. 8, 2004, after slipping into a coma. It was her second hospitalization in several weeks after she had complained of nausea, dizziness and slurred speech.

Prosecutors contend that Keown urged his wife to keep drinking Gatorade in the weeks leading up to her death. The defense argued Julie Keown may have killed herself. The jury is expected to begin deliberations this week.

In Courtroom 630, James Brescia, 46, of Waltham, Mass., was convicted June 24 of hiring a hit man to kill Ed Schiller, his estranged wife Stacey Brescia's lover. Schiller, who was 38, was found dead in his car in January 2006. He had dated Stacey Brescia when they were in high school.

After her marriage foundered, Stacey Brescia reconnected with Schiller. Jealous of his wife's new lover, and hoping for reconciliation, James Brescia paid thousands of dollars to a workplace acquaintance to kill Schiller. His defense argued unsuccessfully that he only wanted Schiller to stay away from his children.

And in the most high-profile of the three trials, Entwistle, 29, was convicted in Courtroom 430 of murdering his wife and baby daughter. The Entwistles lived in a spacious, rented Colonial home on a cul-de-sac in Hopkinton, Mass. Entwistle spent much of his time surfing the Internet for porn and trying to hook up with local escorts in the days before he shot his 27-year-old wife, Rachel, and 9-month old daughter Lillian at point-blank range in the master bedroom.

Prosecutors said that Entwistle murdered his wife because he was dissatisfied with his sex life and buckling under the pressure of mounting debt. The defense claimed Rachel Enwistle shot herself and her baby.

"These guys may have been brutes, but they weren't exactly bright. It's good that we're watching these seemingly normal men, suburban guys, get convicted for doing harm — that sends a strong message," said Wendy Murphy, a legal analyst and ABC News consultant.

The media did take notice. For the past three weeks, there have been crews from NBC's "Dateline," ABC's "20/20" and a host of international press, as well as local reporters swarming outside — and inside — this unassuming courthouse. The metal detector at the main entrance to the courthouse can barely handle the increased foot traffic. Regulars know to avoid the entrance at 7:30 a.m. And you can forget about getting a coffee at the local Dunkin' Donuts.

Anyone who has ever sat in on a trial knows that it can be a bit dull — less "Law & Order" and more of what seems like listening in on a law lecture given by your least favorite professor.

But there have been moments of high drama. Brescia's attorney, Jay Carney, disclosed that his client had a stroke during his trial. One day Brescia was on the stand giving answers in his own defense in a clear voice, the next he couldn't recall much of anything and complained of a headache. He was rushed to the hospital where brain scans showed he had suffered a stroke overnight. A jury still convicted Brescia after deliberating less than a day.

The jury in the Entwistle case deliberated for two-and-a-half-days before finding him guilty on two counts of first-degree murder. After Entwistle's conviction, his mother, Yvonne, walked out of the courtroom and angrily proclaimed his innocence and accused her daughter-in-law of killing her infant and committing suicide.

The Keown jury will begin deliberating today.

Deaths related to domestic violence have shot up in Massachusetts in the last few years. The number has almost tripled from 19 in 2005 to 55 in 2007, and there have already been 24 deaths this year.

"We have a high domestic killing rate here, so people shouldn't be so surprised at the number of trials going on," said legal analyst Murphy. "These men are just the most severe expression of a real domestic violence problem. Too often we're all about 'hug a thug' in this state, we need to punish violence against women at all levels."

Brescia was sentenced to life in prison on June 27; Entwistle was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences on June 26. The fate of the third accused murderer will likely be known this week.

That means life will likely get back to normal soon at Middlesex Superior Court. On the other hand, normal is a matter of perspective.

One of the courtroom attendants — who asked not to be identified — said, "This is nothing; we had a guy in here the other day who was a real Hannibal Lecter-type. I'm not kidding. This sort of thing happens all the time."