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Au pair decision gives just end to nightmarish trial

Nov. 12, 1997

Though the extremely unusual Louise Woodward verdict may seem too light a sentence for a woman convicted of murdering an eight-month-old baby, it is an example of the justice and mercy that should characterize the American legal system. The judge was within his right to overrule the jury's second degree murder sentence, reducing it to an involuntary manslaughter conviction with a sentence of time served.

In his ruling, Judge Hiller B. Zobel said 'Louise Woodward's actions were characterized by confusion, frustration, inexperience and immaturity ... not by malice in the legal sense supporting a ruling of second degree murder.'

Judge Zobel's decision was based on the prosecution's lack of a convincing case and doubts as to when the fatal blow that fractured Matthew Eappen's skull was struck. In short, he believed the woman was innocent, and the jury had been trapped into giving a guilty verdict by the 'all-or-nothing' approach of Woodward's defense team.

There is more at issue here than Louise Woodward's innocence or guilt. The au pair system and the American legal system need to be questioned.

Woodward, little more than a child herself, without any sort of child care training, should not have been left in sole charge of the baby. Au pairs are not full-time nannies; their intended function is to act as a big sister would, filling in for a mother for short periods of time. Woodward probably did not know that shaking a baby can damage its brain, and if its skull was fractured from an earlier incident probably anyone who picked that baby up could have aggravated the injury. To rob Louise Woodward of most of her life for an accident waiting to happen would have been a mistake.

Au pairs are necessary for many working families, and should be more than glorified baby sitters. Laws should be written enforcing a standard of training for all foreign au pairs coming into this country. Parents should be more vigilant in seeking licensed, skilled care for their children, rather than looking to save a few bucks on inexperienced help.

Also, juries should be given more leeway in choosing a sentence for defendants. The jury in the Woodward trial did not want to give a second-degree murder conviction, but were given no choice by the defense. Luckily for Louise Woodward, the judge wasn't afraid to exercise his judicial power in the interest of justice rather than public opinion.

Louise Woodward is free today, after serving slightly more time in jail than Matthew Eappen lived on Earth. While she should not have gone unpunished for her negligence, the amount of time she served was adequate, considering the inflated sentence she almost received.

Too many innocent people in America are sent to prison, only rarely being cleared after years of torture in the penal system. Finally, the vicious cycle of robbing innocent people of their freedom based on public outcry has been broken.

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