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Wednesday, March 4, 1998 Published at 17:14 GMT

Special Report

How Louise Woodward escaped a life-sentence
image: [ Louise Woodward breaking down as she hears the guilty verdict ]
Louise Woodward breaking down as she hears the guilty verdict

Louise Woodward broke down in tears and protested her innocence, when a jury in Boston pronounced her guilty of murdering Matthew Eappen. The image of the sobbing teenager from Britain has come to symbolise the legal battle to prove her guilt - or innocence.

Au Pair

[ image: Sunil and Deborah Eappen at the trial]
Sunil and Deborah Eappen at the trial
Louise Woodward arrived in the US in July 1996. She started working as an au pair for Deborah and Sunil Eappen in Boston in November that year, after leaving her first placement.

Ms Woodward was put in charge of the Eappen's 8-month old baby son Matthew. After two months in the job Deborah and Sunil Eappen issued a warning to the British au pair saying she was staying out too late at night.

Brain haemorrhage

On February 4, 1997 Ms Woodward called an ambulance to the family home after Matthew stopped breathing. He was taken to Boston Children's Hospital and put on a life support machine.

The next day Ms Woodward was arrested and sent to Framingham women's prison.

In court, she pleaded not guilty to battery of a child. However, the police alleged that she had admitted shaking the toddler and throwing him onto a pile of towels.

On February 10, Matthew Eappen died. He had suffered a severe brain haemorrhage, and it was finally decided to switch off his life support machine.

Prosecutors then announced they would seek a murder indictment. The following month, a grand jury decided that Miss Woodward had to face a charge of first degree murder.

The trial begins

On October 7, 1997, the trial began in a courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ms Woodward, then 19 years old, denied murdering Matthew, while the prosecution contended that she killed the nine-month old baby in a "frustrated, unhappy and resentful rage".

A number of expert witnesses were called to testify at the Massachusetts courthouse. Brain surgeon Joseph Medsen conceded the head injuries Matthew suffered could have been received days or even weeks before he was taken to hospital.

[ image: Judge Hiller Zobel: controversial judge who overtuned the murder verdict]
Judge Hiller Zobel: controversial judge who overtuned the murder verdict
The pathologist, Gerard Feigin, who carried out the autopsy, said that he found no evidence that Matthew had been shaken.

But when Detective Sergeant William Byrne was called to testify, he said that Ms Woodward had told him that she "may have been a little rough" with Matthew after he had been "cranky, crying and fussy".

Almost two weeks into the trial Ms Woodward gave her version of events. Crying as she described her frantic attempts to revive baby Matthew, she denied shaking him violently, hitting or hurting him.

The prosecution countered her version of events calling her "a liar and aspiring actress".

All-or-nothing verdict

One of the biggest legal decisions Ms Woodward had to make during the trial was whether or not to allow the jury to consider charges less serious than murder. If, for example, the jury had believed that she had no intention to kill Matthew Eappen, she could have been found guilty of manslaughter.

In the event, Louise Woodward chose to go for a high-risk 'all-or-nothing' verdict. The jury was given the alternative: either to acquit her, or find her guilty of murder.


On October 30, after 26 hours of deliberations, the jury returned with its verdict: It found Louise Woodward guilty of second degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence of which a minimum of 15 years have to be served.

It was at this point that Ms Woodward collapsed in hysterical tears in the court room saying "I didn't do it..I didn't hurt Matty."

[ image: Louise Woodward's parents showed no emotions when the guilty verdict was delivered]
Louise Woodward's parents showed no emotions when the guilty verdict was delivered
Her parents, sitting in the courtroom as they had done throughout the trial, remained calm and expressionless. Afterwards her mother said: "They have made a horrendous mistake and they need to put it right."

The next day Judge Hiller Zobel sent Ms Woodward to jail for life unleashing a wave of demonstrations outside the prison where she was being held and at her home in Elton, Cheshire in the UK. Her supporters then launched an appeal for funds to help her legal battle for freedom.

Jury split

In the days following the decision it emerged that the jury had been split about the murder charge, but those who had favoured an acquittal were persuaded to accept a conviction.

[ image: Supporters of Louise Woodward in Britain watch a live broadcast of the verdict being read out]
Supporters of Louise Woodward in Britain watch a live broadcast of the verdict being read out
One member of the jury said that no one "thought she tried to murder him".

On November 4 the Louise Woodward case took another dramatic turn with Judge Zobel hearing a plea from the defence for the murder charge to be reduced to manslaughter, backtracking on the original all-or-nothing strategy.

Internet decision

Judge Zobel made the historic decision to post his judgement on the Internet, a move which made history for the wrong reasons after a technical problem in the courthouse failed to deliver his judgement over the net.

His all-important judgement, published on November 10, reduced Ms Woodward's sentence to involuntary manslaughter. He also cut the sentence to 279 days, exactly the period of time she already had spent in prison, which meant she was free to go.

Judge Zobel said his decision was not meant to denigrate the death of Matthew Eappen, but that he had taken into account all the circumstances in coming to the "proper sentence."

However, Louise Woodward was ordered to remain in Massachusetts until her and the prosecution's appeal against the manslaughter charge has been heard.


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  Internet Links

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International Au Pair Association

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