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Prosecutors Pledge To Appeal Judge’s Reduction of Au Pair Louise Woodward’s Murder Conviction

November 11, 1997

Prosecutors Pledge To Appeal Judge’s Reduction of Au Pair Louise Woodward’s Murder Conviction and Decision To Set Her FreeBy ERICA NOONAN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ Louise Woodward is free, but the 19-year-old English au pair is far from home and may not get there for a long time.

She is still tethered to Massachusetts.

The same judge who turned her loose barred her from leaving the state until a court says so, and the appeal of her manslaughter conviction could take two years. Her lawyers and friends, meanwhile, were mulling a bid to have her declared innocent for killing 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.

For now, at least, Ms. Woodward is free to do what she wants for the first time in more than nine months.

She is free ``to walk to the end of the corner, to turn in the direction she wants to turn, to cross a street, to catch a bus, to buy a Coke, just to be a free person,″ said defense attorney Elaine Whitfield Sharp.

Judge Hiller Zobel on Monday sentenced Ms. Woodward to the 279 days she served in prison since her arrest Feb. 5 and ordered her released to bring a ``compassionate conclusion″ to the case.

Two national polls released today indicate a split opinion about the sentence, which was far shorter than the 40 to 60 months included in state guidelines.

Polls by ABC News and USA Today/CNN found a majority of those surveyed _ 56 percent on the ABC poll and 52 percent for USA Today/CNN _ agreed with the judge’s decision to reduce the murder conviction. However, 49 percent in the ABC poll and 52 percent in the USA Today/CNN poll thought she deserved to spend more time behind bars.

The ruling angered Drs. Sunil and Deborah Eappen, who came under widespread criticism for entrusting Matthew and his brother, Brendan, now 3, 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.

``What is Judge Zobel thinking? What does that say about justice? Does it say that you can kill a baby, and that your youth and inexperience with cranky babies counts for more than a child’s life?″ Mrs. Eappen told The Boston Globe.

Eappen said he wondered how Zobel could find Ms. Woodward guilty of manslaughter, but set her free.

``What if Matthew had been his grandson?″ Eappen asked. ``Doesn’t he get it? Someone killed Matthew. He acknowledges on the one hand that someone killed Matthew, and on the other hand he frees her. It makes no sense.″

The televised trial grabbed the attention of millions in this country and in England, where Ms. Woodward lives. It generated sharp criticism of America’s legal system and raised questions about how working parents can find safe child care.

For Ms. Woodward’s supporters, the decisions to reduce her conviction from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter and order her release amounted to absolution.

``Justice has been done,″ said Patrick McGibbern, one of many who hugged and cheered amid champagne toasts at a pub in Ms. Woodward’s hometown of Elton.

Zobel, whose options included affirming the Oct. 30 jury verdict, ordering a new trial or declaring Ms. Woodward innocent, said she had been ``a little rough″ with Matthew, causing his skull fracture. But Zobel said she had not acted with malice, an element required to reach the murder conviction.

``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,″ Zobel wrote.

Ms. Woodward did not speak to reporters, but a member of the British Parliament, Andrew Miller, said he spoke to her by telephone and that she asked him to thank her supporters. Miller told the British Press Association that Ms. Woodward told him she was enjoying her first vegetarian sandwich in nine months.

``She is in a dream at the moment because, first of all, the judge’s reduction of the charge and, secondly, much to everyone’s surprise, he effectively freed her,″ Miller said.

Her younger sister, Vicky, who talked to her by phone from Elton, said Ms. Woodward expected the judge to sentence her to 10 years in prison.

``She wants to say thank you to everybody,″ she said. ``I just can’t wait for her to come home.″

``When I heard the sentence, I started screaming and jumping around all over the place,″ the 18-year-old psychology student told Sky television. ``I didn’t expect it at all.″

On the other side, prosecutors also were stunned by the rulings.

``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 Tom Reilly, the Middlesex County district attorney.

``I’m sickened by what happened,″ said Reilly, who pointed out the au pair had been behind bars just 17 days more than the 262 days that Matthew lived.

Prosecutors argued that Ms. Woodward deliberately shook the baby and slammed him against a hard surface on Feb. 4 because she hated her job and was frustrated by the baby’s fussiness. He died five days later.

The defense contended that the baby actually was injured two to three weeks earlier.

Zobel said Ms. Woodward probably shook the baby out of frustration but her actions ``were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice.″

The murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence in prison with no chance at parole for 15 years. The manslaughter conviction carries a 20-year maximum sentence, but no minimum.

Manslaughter was an option that jurors weren’t allowed to consider. Confident that Ms. Woodward would be acquitted, her lawyers successfully petitioned the judge to order jurors to consider only a murder conviction or acquittal.

One of the jurors, Stephen Colwell, did not hesitate when asked if he still felt Ms. Woodward caused the baby’s death.

``Absolutely,″ he said. The defense’s argument that Matthew was injured weeks before the day he was left alone with his au pair ``just did not seem reasonable to us.″

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