Judge Reduces Murder Conviction of British Au Pair Louise Woodward to Involuntary
Nov. 10, 1997
Judge Reduces Murder Conviction of British Au Pair Louise Woodward to Involuntary Manslaughter, Sparing Her a Life Sentence for Baby's DeathBy RICHARD LORANT
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ A judge today reduced the second-degree murder conviction of British au pair Louise Woodward to involuntary manslaughter, sparing her a life sentence for the death of an 8-month-old baby in her care.
The decision by Judge Hiller B. Zobel means that the 19-year-old can be sentenced to no more than 20 years in prison for the death last February of little Matthew Eappen. She could be freed immediately at sentencing this afternoon; she already has served nine months, most of the time while awaiting trial.
Zobel said he believed Ms. Woodward acted out of immaturity and frustration, 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 in his 16-page decision.
The jury's Oct. 30 verdict _ guilty of second-degree murder_ stirred emotions on both sides of the Atlantic. Such a conviction carries a mandatory term of life imprisonment with parole possible after 15 years. Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in state prison, but no minimum. The recommended sentence in Massachusetts for involuntary manslaughter is 3 1-3 to five years.
Defense lawyers said today that they would appeal the manslaughter conviction but would not comment in detail on the judge's ruling.
Matthew's parents were in seclusion and had no comment about the decision. His paternal grandmother, Achamma Eappen, said Zobel's ruling ``still proves she's guilty.''
``I guess the judge knows what he's doing and as long as she pays for what she has done to baby Matthew,'' she 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.''
Matthew died Feb. 9, five days after he was taken to a hospital. Prosecutors said evidence of a 2 1/2-inch fracture to the back of the baby's head and bleeding behind Matthew's eyes indicated the baby's head had been slammed against a hard surface.
They said Ms. Woodward hated her job because it interfered with her social life. The baby's parents said they had to reprimand her about her late hours and what they considered lapses in her duties.
But the defense said the baby actually had been injured two to three weeks before Feb. 4, pointing to testimony that a clear fluid was found in the baby's skull. Ms. Woodward denied hurting the child, saying she only shook him a bit when she found him unresponsive in his crib after a bath. She denied telling police she may have been ``a little rough'' with Matthew.
Several jurors had said they wished they could have considered manslaughter as an option. They had been barred from doing so by an ``all or nothing'' defense strategy of giving jurors only the options of murder or acquittal.
Today's ruling pleased one of the jurors. ``I am greatly relieved at this decision,'' said Stephen Colwell.
Under Massachusetts law, Zobel had four options in deciding the appeal of the conviction: Let the verdict stand; dismiss the conviction; order a new trial; or reduce the finding to manslaughter.
Manslaughter, not murder with a mandatory life sentence, best fits the scenario suggested by the evidence, the judge wrote: a young, inexperienced teen frustrated with the demands of baby care. A finding of malice under the second-degree murder count meant concluding the defendant committed a deliberate act that a reasonable person would have known was likely to cause death.
``I believe that the circumstances in which Defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice (in the legal sense),'' the judge wrote.
``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 ruling, which was to be released over the Internet, was delayed more than an hour by a power outage that occurred as the decision was about to be sent, said Whitney Brown, first assistant clerk magistrate for the court. The decision was released on paper, and then finally showed up on the Internet by late morning.
Awaiting the decision, reporters were asked to leave the courthouse. Ms. Woodward was in the women's prison in Framingham, where court officials said she had access to a television.
Ms. Woodward's supporters, who had been keeping vigil outside the courthouse, were asked by the judge to wait instead at a neighborhood restaurant. ``A manslaughter sentence is better than life, but she should be set free,'' said Kelli Kane, one of the supporters, after word came out.
In Woodward's home town of Elton, England, resident Margot Thomson-Moore said she was disappointed because ``I felt that there was reasonable doubt and, if there was reasonable enough doubt, they should have acquitted her. In this country, she wouldn't have been convicted.''
Defense attorneys had conceded they made a mistake in their strategy of limiting the jurors to consideration of either acquittal or first- and second-degree murder, and not manslaughter. In today's decision, the judge said it was a rational strategy for the defense to take at the time.
The prosecution said Ms. Woodward and her lawyers were just looking for a better deal and should not be allowed a reduced finding unless she admits what she did.
The verdict prompted sob-filled bewilderment from Ms. Woodward, portrayed by prosecutors as frustrated and angry with Matthew for fussing. She cried to jurors: ``I didn't do anything. ... Why did they do that to me?''
The case, with no eyewitness and conflicting medical testimony, was closely followed across the country and in England, where many were stunned by the verdict and swift sentence.
There was criticism at home, too, even before the verdict.
Some said Matthew's parents, Deborah and Sunil Eappen, both doctors, should not have left the baby and his now 3-year-old brother, Brendan, with a low-paid teen-ager who had come to the United States for adventure. A family friend said last week that the Eappens had left the state to avoid reporters.
Zobel took note of all the public interest, and the Eappen family's pain, but stressed he had to make his decision solely on the evidence. ``Elected officials may consider popular urging and sway to public opinion polls,'' he wrote. ``Judges must follow their oaths and do their duty, heedless of editorials, letters, telegrams, picketers, threats, petitions, panelists, and talk shows. In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite.''
EDITOR'S NOTE _ The AP has set up a site on the World Wide Web for anyone who wants to read the judge's decision: http://wire.ap.org/woodward/
The decision also has been posted on The WIRE, the AP's Web site available through member news organizations. A list of members who use The WIRE can be found at http://wire.ap.org