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Judge reduces British au pair's conviction to manslaughter, sets her free

Nov. 11, 1997

The Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- A judge reduced Louise Woodward's murder conviction to manslaughter and set the English au pair free Monday in hopes of bringing 'a compassionate conclusion' to a case that shone a spotlight on everything from working moms to the American legal system.

As the world watched, Judge Hiller B. Zobel sentenced Ms. Woodward to the 279 days served since her arrest last February in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.

The round-faced 19-year-old showed no reaction in court. Her lawyers said she would have no comment.

Hours earlier, the judge ruled that she killed the baby by shaking him violently but that her actions did not constitute second-degree murder because she did not act with malice.

Second-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.

'In selecting the sentence here I do not denigrate Matthew Eappen's death nor his family's grief,' Zobel said. But he added: 'It is, in my judgment, time to bring the judicial part of this extraordinary matter to a compassionate conclusion.'

Cheers went up outside the courthouse and inside a pub in her village of Elton, England. 'Thank you Judge Zobel-Elton,' said one sign held by a supporter. Others drank champagne.

The baby's parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, were out of state, but in suburban Chicago, the child's grandmother said the decision upholds the essence of the jury's finding.

'It still proves that she's guilty,'Achamma Eappen said from her home in Hinsdale, Ill. 'All that we wanted was for us to know what has really happened, and this still shows that she's guilty.'

Prosecutors immediately said they would appeal, and Zobel ordered Ms. Woodward to stay in Massachusetts until a court decides she can leave.

'In all my years of prosecuting cases this is the most bizarre series of events I have ever seen, perhaps the most bizarre series of events that anyone has ever seen in this courthouse,' said District Attorney Tom Reilly. 'I'm sickened by what happened. I'm saddened by what happened. I really am.'

The case had drawn worldwide attention to the issues of working parents and child care and prompted criticism of the American jury system.

Ms. Woodward had denied harming the baby, and supporters had argued that the murder conviction and life sentence were too harsh.

To prove malice, a necessary element of second-degree murder, prosecutors would have had to show that 'a reasonable person would have known that her intentional act created a substantial risk of death,' the judge said.

The judge said he believed that Ms. Woodward's actions were 'characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice.

'After extensive, cool, calm reflection, I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted on second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice,' the judge wrote.

Defense attorney Barry Scheck praised Zobel.

'We have great respect for what he did and the courage he showed today,' Scheck said. 'This has been a very tragic case. Matthew Eappen is dead. Nothing is going to change that.'

As the sentence was read, Gary Woodward, the defendant's father, clasped his hand over his face and began to cry. His wife, Susan, stood up, smiled, and the couple embraced.

Prosecutor Gerard Leone Jr. had requested a 15- to 20-year sentence, saying Ms. Woodward never accepted responsibility for the killing or showed remorse. The recommended sentence in Massachusetts for involuntary manslaughter is 3 1/3 to five years.

Ms. Woodward continued to stick to her story. 'I maintain what I said at my last sentencing, that I'm innocent,' she told the judge.

Defense lawyers said they would appeal for her vindication

The judge had planned to take the extraordinary step of releasing the ruling straight onto the Internet. But the plan was stymied by a power outage just moments before he was to issue the decision. Word of the ruling got out the old-fashioned way, via lawyers, phone calls and faxes.

Zobel had four options: affirm the jury's verdict, order a new trial, declare Ms. Woodward innocent or reduce her conviction to manslaughter the very charge her lawyers, adopting an all-or-nothing strategy, prevented the jury from even considering. Confident that Ms. Woodward would be acquitted, her lawyers .successfully argued that the jury should only be able to find her guilty of first- or second-degree murder or acquit her.

After she was convicted Oct. 30, members of the jury said they would have considered manslaughter if they had had that option.

One juror Monday said he was relieved by Zobel's ruling. 'Had that option been before us, we may have come to the same conclusion, so I think we can live with it,' Stephen Colwell said in Dallas.

In Woodward's hometown of Elton, England -- where residents tied yellow ribbons on trees, held vigils and marched for Ms. Woodward's release -- supporters were disappointed she wasn't acquitted.

'I felt that there was reasonable doubt and, if there was reasonable enough doubt, they should have acquitted her,' Margot Thomson-Moore said. 'In this country, she wouldn't have been convicted.'

The baby's parents, both doctors from the prosperous Boston suburb of Newton, had been harshly criticized on the Internet, in phone calls and on talk radio for entrusting their children's care to a $115-a-week au pair, a young person who comes to the United States on a cultural exchange instead of a more expensive and highly trained nanny.

Matthew died Feb. 9, five days after he was taken to a hospital. Prosecutors said evidence of a 2-inch fracture to the back of the baby's head and bleeding behind Matthew's eyes indicated the baby had been violently shaken and his head had been slammed against a hard surface. They said Ms. Woodward hated her job because it interfered with her social life and was frustrated by the baby's fussiness.

The defense said the baby actually had been injured two to three weeks earlier. Ms. Woodward denied telling police she may have been 'a little rough' with Matthew.

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