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Monday, November 10, 1997 Published at 18:51 GMT



Special Report

Judge Zobel's order, a summary

Judge Hiller Zobel begins his order deciding Louise Woodward's fate by using a historical quote to sum up the problems he faced: "The law, John Adams told a Massachusetts jury while defending British citizens on trial for murder, is inflexible, inexorable, and deaf: inexorable to the cries of the defendant; 'deaf as an adder to the clamours of the populace.' His words ring true, 227 years later."

He insisted, right at the beginning of what will be probably one of the world's most analysed judgements, that: "Judges must follow their oaths and do their duty, heedless of editorials, letters, telegrams, picketers, threats, petitions, panelists, and talk shows."

Before responding to the defence's submissions:

  • to overturn the jury's verdict,
  • to stage a new trial,
  • or to reduce the verdict,
Judge Zobel reduces the prosecution and defence evidence to "its appropriately bare essentials".

Both sides agreed that Matthew Eappen died from massive bleeding inside his skull, with the prosecution claiming the bleeding was caused by "a combination of extraordinarily violent shaking and overpowering contact with a hard flat surface, all occurring some time on February 4, 1997."

The defence's case was that the haemorrhage was caused by a "re-bleed" in a clot formed about three weeks earlier following a hitherto undetected injury.

Judge Zobel rejects the defence submissions for a 'Required Finding of Not Guilty,'" by finding that the jury did not just reject evidence favourable to the defence.

He insists the burden of proof lay entirely with the prosecution: "The jury could return a Guilty verdict only if, in addition to an adverse assessment of the defense position, the jurors concluded, on all the evidence, that the prosecution's version was true, beyond a reasonable doubt."

His clinching argument is that he is satisfied the jury was able to "discard every scrap of evidence (testimonial or visual, direct or circumstantial) tending to cast doubt on the prosecution's theory."

Judge Zobel also rejects the 'Motion for a New Trial'. He states that: "A judge may not grant a new trial merely because had he been the fact-finder the case would have come out differently," pointing out at the same time that this statement did not imply differences between himself and the jury. In any case, in a first-degree murder trial the defence cannot opt for a juryless trial.

Judge Zobel criticises the prosecution for not discovering the "skull fracture photographs" earlier, but says that these and other scientific arguments are not enough to order a retrial.

His clinching argument, against this motion is that: "The verdict, it seems to me, was not against the weight of the evidence."

The defence's third submission to Judge Zobel was a 'Motion to Reduce Verdict', and this is what he has granted.

Judge Zobel devotes nearly half of his order to justifying his decision to downgrade Louise Woodward's conviction to manslaughter.

He begins by stating that "a very serious issue remains as to the justice of the second-degree murder verdict the trial produced."

Citing Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure 25(b)(2) and using a series of legal precedents, Judge Zobel decides that he "may reduce the level of the conviction, for any reason that justice may require."

Judge Zobel also rules that his decision making must be entirely motivated by the circumstances of the defendant. "The Court may not, however, take into account the feelings of those the death has affected; the judge must focus entirely on the events of the trial."

He continues, movingly: "Thus although as a father and grandfather I particularly recognize and acknowledge the indescribable pain Matthew Eappen's death has caused his parents and grandparents, as a judge I am duty-bound to ignore it. I must look only at the evidence and the defendant."

Having weighed the arguments he decides: "Having considered the matter carefully, I am firmly convinced that the interests of justice - as Rule 25(b)(2) and the cases construing it have defined them - mandate my reducing the verdict to manslaughter."

Judge Zobel rules that "the circumstances in which Defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice (in the legal sense) supporting a conviction for second degree murder."

"Frustrated by her inability to quiet the crying child, she was "a little rough with him," under circumstances where another, perhaps wiser, person would have sought to restrain the physical impulse. The roughness was sufficient to start (or re-start) a bleeding that escalated fatally."

The final part of Judge Zobel's order deals with the defence's initial opposition to the manslaughter charge, which was supported by the prosecution, and the volte face which has seen the defence asking him to consider reducing the charge, a move now opposed by the prosecution.

Judge Zobel here decides that: "Had the manslaughter option been available to the jurors, they might well have selected it, not out of compromise, but because that particular verdict accorded with at least one rational view of the evidence."

He then backs the defence's tactics in first rejecting the manslaughter option and then embracing it, and rules: "Massachusetts, however, never has and does not now view Justice as a handmaiden to Tyche, the Goddess of Good Fortune. Of course chance plays a part in litigation, as it does in every aspect of life. A court, nonetheless, is not a casino. The only institutionalized luck in a courtroom is the random selection of the jury venire at the beginning of trial and the random choice of alternate jurors at the end."

Judge Zobel's conclusion is that "After intensive, cool, calm reflection, I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice."

His final word is to praise the jury, and to insist that his decision is not a criticism of its verdict. "The decision rests, as it should, entirely on my determination, guided by my reason, my conscience, and the established precedents and principles, that the interests of justice are best served here by my exercising my informed discretion and lowering the degree of guilt attributable to Defendant."






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Louise tackles law

Woodward faces trial for damages