Louise Woodward Trial: 1997

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Louise Woodward Trial: 1997

Defendant: Louise Woodward
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Barry Scheck, Andrew Good, and Harvey Silverglate
Chief Prosecutors: Gerard Leone, Jr. and Martha Coakley
Judge: Hiller Zobel
Place: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Dates of Trial: October 7-31, 1997
Verdict: Guilty of second-degree murder (later reduced to involuntary manslaughter)
Sentence: Life imprisonment (later reduced to time served)

SIGNIFICANCE: This was a sensational trial, followed intently on both sides of the Atlantic, that employed a landmark use of modern technologythe Internetto reveal the outcome.

On February 4, 1997, teenaged nanny Louise Woodward called 911 and said that the eight-month-old baby she was tending, Matthew Eappen, was having difficulty breathing. When paramedics arrived at the Eappen household in the Boston suburb of Newton, they found the baby had suffered a head injury and his eyes were bulging, a possible sign of "shaken-baby syndrome." After four days in intensive care, Matthew died. Louise, working in America but British by birth, had already been accused of assault, but was now charged with first-degree murder.

When the trial opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 7, 1997, the defendant's age, nationality, and the crime she was charged with generated headline media coverage. Back in her hometown of Elton, England, Louise's supporters gathered in a pub to watch the proceedings on TV. They listened as chief prosecutor Gerard Leone, Jr. described her as being more interested in enjoying Boston nightlife than providing proper care for the Eappen children, two-year-old Brendan and infant Matthew.

Family Warning

In late January 1997, the Eappens had issued an ultimatum to Louise: shape up or ship out. Just five days later, Matthew was in the hospital.

"We are not saying that the defendant woke up on February 4 specifically intending to kill Matthew Eappen," Leone told the jury. "What we're saying is that on February 4, the defendant, in a frustrated, resentful, unhappy attitude, slammed the baby into a hard object and shook him, causing his deathactions that anyone would know would result in death. In this commonwealth, that is murder."

An early prosecution witness, Dr. Kenneth Mandl, who had treated Matthew in the emergency room, described the infant as unresponsive and comatose, with enlarged pupils and evidence of retinal hemorrhagingall signs of severe head trauma.

Under vigorous cross-examination from celebrated attorney Barry Scheck, however, Mandl conceded that he had found no physical evidence to suggest that Matthew had been shaken. Scheck pressed hard. Was there anything to support the prosecution's claim that Matthew's head had been slammed down "with the force of dropping a child 15 feet onto hard concrete"? Again Mandl had to concede. "There were no findings to specifically indicate that, no."

Dr. Joseph Madsen, who had operated on Matthew, said the injuries had caused the brain to swell "like a loaf of bread rising in an oven," and he rebuffed Scheck's suggestionwhich would form the cornerstone of the defensethat the brain trauma was the result of a previous head injury.

Deadly Fall?

A string of medical experts testified for the prosecution that, in their opinion, Matthew's injuries were clearly indicative of "shaken-baby syndrome," although Scheck did make some minor headway when Dr. Gerald Feigin, who had performed the autopsy on Matthew, admitted that his much-quoted grand jury testimony about the baby's skull fracture resulting from the equivalent of a 15-foot fall was incorrect. A fall, Feigin acknowledged, of just two or three feet could cause such injuries.

Detective William Byrne, who had interviewed Louise after the incident, stated that she had admitted being "a little rough" with Matthew, angered by his nonstop crying, and that she had tossed him on a bed. Later, she said she had dropped Matthew onto the bathroom floor and that he may have struck his head on the side of the tub.

Some of the sharpest exchanges came when prosecution witness Dr. Eli Newberger, another pediatrician who had examined Matthew, was being crossexamined. He accused Scheck of attempting to distort his testimony, saying forcibly, " this child was violently shaken for a prolonged period."

Deborah Eappen, Matthew's mother, was in a grimly ironic position: bereaved parent and qualified ophthalmologist. At the hospital she had examined her injured son's eyes and had seen extensive retinal hemorrhaging, a sign of shaken-baby syndrome.

"I knew what that meant," Mrs. Eappen said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it." She also described the deteriorating relationship between Louise and herself.

Matthew's father, Sunil Eappen, the final prosecution witness, tried to convey an image of Louise as irresponsible and careless. "I can't remember a single evening when she was home the mornings after were a problem," Mr. Eappen said, a reference to Louise's alleged inability to get up to care for their children after partying the night before.

Defendant Stays Cool

Although the defense began by producing several character witnesses for Louise, it was clear that this trial would be fought on medical grounds. In that respect the defense was just as well armed as the prosecution had been. Numerous defense experts testified that Matthew's injuries were inconsistent with "shaken-baby syndrome," and that they were the result of an old injury. Under Scheck's deft guidance this alternative theory gradually assumed credibility.

Then came testimony from Louise herself. Choking back tears, she described how she had tried to revive Matthew after finding him gasping in his crib. She also denied ever having told the police that she had been "rough" with Matthew. "I said maybe I was not as gentle with him as I could have been."

Louise stood up well under cross-examination, brushing aside Leone's suggestion that she had been upset with the Eappens on the day of the incident. Nor, she stated, had she told police that she had "dropped" Matthew on the bathroom floor, but rather "popped" him on the bathroom floor, explaining that "pop" is an English term that means to "lay" or "place."

Throughout her testimony, Louise remained calm. Too calm for Leone. In his peroration, he portrayed Louise as an "aspiring little actress," who told her employers "half-truths." He dismissed the "theatrical, high-priced" medical evidence presented by the defense, adding, "These injuries were caused by Louise Woodward in Matthew Eappen's own home while she was responsible for his care. To believe otherwise, you would have to believe that little falls kill little kids. They don't."

Defense attorney Andrew Good, in his summation, tried to make the defendant out to be the victim. "Louise Woodward had the colossal misfortune to be with Matthew when this old injury caused him to fall and the bleeding would not stop. She has been vilified, she has been accused and now she has been proven innocent."

Scheck hammered home the "previous-injury" defense. Brandishing copies of X rays of the skull fracture, he argued that the absence of obvious swellingwhich would have indicated that the injury was recentdestroyed the prosecution's case. "We may never know exactly how this incident occurred but, if this is an old injurycase over," he said. "It did not happen on February 4. And if it didn't happen on February 4, that's the end of the case."

Prosecution Switch

At this point the prosecution requested that the jury be allowed to consider alternative charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, as well as murder, a move rigorously opposed by the defense. So far as they were concerned, it was murder or nothing. In the end Judge Zobel agreed with the defense; the jury could consider only first-or second-degree murder.

On October 30, after deliberating for 30 hours, the jury convicted Wood-ward of second-degree murder. The next day she was sentenced to life impris-onment.

But that was not the end of the story. On November 7, Judge Zobel heard a three-part defense motion: first, asking that the verdict be set aside and the case dismissed; second, setting aside the verdict and holding a new trial; or third, reducing the charge to manslaughter.

In light of the intense media interest, Judge Zobel took the unusual step of announcing that his ruling would be released on the Internet on November 10.

When it came, his decision was explosive. Not only did Judge Zobel reduce Louise's conviction to involuntary manslaughter, but he reduced the sentence to time served, which meant immediate freedom for the British teenager. She had spent just 279 days behind bars.

On June 16, 1998, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Louise's reduced conviction of involuntary manslaughter and she returned to England, where she began studies as a law student.

A subsequent wrongful-death suit brought by the Eappens against Louise was settled out of court. Details of the settlement were not released to the public.

Throughout the trial, Louise's supporters in England maintained a vocal and publicly organized belief in her innocence that owed more to emotion than it did to evidence, prompting suspicions that, in this case at least, sympathy for a young woman in jeopardy appeared to outweigh concern for a child that lay dead.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Electronic Telegraph: February 11, 1997, issue 627; February 13, 1997, issue 630; October 11, 1997, issue 870; October 17, 1997, issue 876; October 29, 1997, issue 888.

Los Angeles Times: October 24, 1997, Al l; October 28, 1997, A27; November 13, 1997, Al17; November 13, 1997, A17.

Sunday Times Magazine (February 15, 1998): 38-45.


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Louise Woodward Trial: 1997