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Thursday, October 30, 1997 Published at 11:02 GMT




Nanny murder trial - jury still out


The jury in the Woodward trial is due to return to the courtroom in Boston later today. It has now been considering its verdict for two days. The BBC's Washington Correspondent Philippa Thomas looks back on how the story unfolded in a Massachusetts courtroom.

Just across the river from Boston, the jury in the Middlesex Superior Courthouse have spent two days considering the case of Louise Woodward. These twelve men and women will decide the course of the teenager's life. She could walk free this week, or spend the rest of her days within prison walls.

It is the end of a three week battle between prosecution lawyers and the Woodward team: a battle that's been fought on two fronts.

First, the clash of the medical men. Was eight month old Matthew Eappen in effect shaken to death or was he suffering from bleeding in the brain that had gone undetected for weeks? Both teams produced "the world's leading experts" to make their own case.

Second, a powerful clash of images. To the prosecution Louise Woodward was a resentful teenager out of her depth, who had lost her temper with a teething baby. The defence answer was simple: this is a girl who would not hurt a fly. And Louise Woodward herself took the witness stand to try to prove it.

But as the judge brought the case to a close a few hours ago, the weight of evidence on the two sides appeared much more finely balanced than anyone had predicted.

The prosecution opened its case on October 7 appearing supremely confident. Lawyer Gerard Leone told the jury that the injuries inflicted upon baby Matthew Eappen were "extremely atrocious and cruel". He told them about the evidence that doctors had uncovered in the emergency room : "a two and a half inch fracture to the skull, a massively swollen brain, and bloody retinal haemorrhage". He told them that could have only one cause: the baby had been violently slammed against a hard surface and severely shaken back and forth. That, he said, was murder. What's more, he said there was circumstantial evidence that Louise Woodward was on the verge of losing her temper - evidence from a witness who had heard her describe baby Matthew and his two year old brother Brendan as "fussy, cranky, crying little brats".

At the start of the trial, it seemed local opinion was with the prosecution. One phrase seemed to be on every reporter's lips -- journalists from Boston, New York and Washington; from London and the north-west of England -- that this was "every parent's nightmare". How could she have betrayed the parents' trust, I was asked. How could she have done such a thing?

And in the courthouse, the medical case against Louise Woodward was strong. The surgeon who had operated on the baby at Boston Children's Hospital described his injuries as "devastating". He believed they had to have been caused by a forcible slamming of the head, and by severe shaking, and he believed they were caused only hours before Matthew went to hospital. Hours in which the British au pair was alone with the child.

There was much more along those lines - from specialists in every relevant field of medicine. Doctor Eli Newberger, an expert on child abuse, told the court "there was no doubt in my mind that this infant was a victim of shaken baby syndrome". Neuroradiologist Doctor Patrick Barnes described it as "a classic picture of acute shaken baby injury". And ophthalmologist Doctor Lois Smith echoed that diagnosis, adding that "on a scale of one to ten, this was a nine".

It seemed the case against Louise Woodward - at least for manslaughter if not for first degree murder - was overwhelming. And that may be what the jury decides.

But the defence has played a powerful hand. And from the day it opened its case - on October 17 - it has employed one of America's most powerful lawyers. Barry Scheck is known to every American viewer as one of the so-called "dream team": the lawyers who secured the acquittal of O.J.Simpson at that most controversial murder trial. His speciality is medical evidence - and in this case, his talents have represented Louise Woodward's best hope.

The prosecution case can be summed up like this: Louise was alone with the baby. The baby died. She did it. The defence case can be summed up as a rebuttal: Don't jump to conclusions. There was evidence of a brain injury before the day in question. That must amount to "reasonable doubt".

And much of the last week of the trial was aimed at creating confusion, at presenting an alternative theory, so that the jury could not convict Louise Woodward of first degree murder "beyond all reasonable doubt." The courtroom became a classroom, as another battalion of experts gave their testimony on the structure of the brain, and in particular the state of Matthew Eappen's.

Pathology expert Doctor Jan Leestma told the court he had "hard actual evidence" that the baby had suffered bleeding in the brain as long as three weeks before he died. Head injuries expert Doctor Laurence Tibault - who helped to identify "Shaken Baby Syndrome" back in 1987 - testified that Matthew Eappen was not a shaken baby. And each defence expert agreed, that in fact, the baby had died of a "chronic subdural haematoma" - in other words, a blood clot that had increased the pressure inside his brain. That pressure had reached crisis point on a day he was alone with Louise, they said.

The medical evidence in this trial was crucial -- but mind-boggling. By the time the last doctor stood down from the stand, Louise Woodward's lawyers knew there was a danger that each side might simply have cancelled the other out. So her own testimony - on Friday and Monday - became vital. Not least because it reminded everybody watching, in the courtroom, in the States, and back home, that this was no monster --- but a teenage girl.

What we will not know until the verdict is announced is how members of the jury see her: whether they believe Louise Woodward was covering up for a crime committed eight months earlier or finally allowed to tell the truth - her side of the story - in public for the first time.
 






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