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Tuesday, November 11, 1997 Published at 12:18 GMT

Woodward released after conviction cut

Louise Woodward walks from the court after being freed by Judge Hiller B. Zobel

British au pair Louise Woodward has been released from custody after her conviction for the murder of a baby in her care was reduced to involuntary manslaughter by a judge in the US.

Massachusetts Judge Hiller Zobel sentenced 19-year-old Miss Woodward to 279 days in prison. She had already served that term so the ruling meant her release.

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

Prosecutor Gerard Leone, who had called for a term of 15-20 years on the grounds that Miss Woodward had shown no remorse, opposed the sentence and asked the judge not to free her immediately.

The judge denied the request, but told Miss Woodward that she had to surrender her passport and remain in the state pending an appeal.

'Morally certain'

Miss Woodward herself spoke only briefly at the sentencing hearing - to repeat that she was innocent.

Earlier, Judge Zobel had reduced Miss Woodward's conviction for second degree murder to manslaughter to avoid what he called "a miscarriage of justice".

He had been asked by her lawyers to throw out her conviction for killing Matthew Eappen or order a retrial, but he decided instead on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.

In his 16-page judgement, Judge Zobel said Miss Woodward's actions were "not characterised by malice in the legal sense" but by "confusion, inexperience and frustration, and some anger."

The judge said it was her frustration caused by her inability to quieten Matthew that made her "a little rough with him". In the circumstances, a "wiser person" might have stopped the "physical impulse" to shake the baby, the judge added.

Referring to the media coverage and the pressure from both sides, Judge Zobel said he had given the matter "intensive, cool, calm reflection".

He said: "I am morally certain that allowing this defendant, on this evidence, to remain convicted of second degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice."

He said he had decided to reduce the verdict to manslaughter "in accordance with my discretion and my duty."

If Judge Zobel had not changed the jury's verdict, Miss Woodward would have had to serve at least 15 years of a mandatory life sentence for second degree murder.

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