Nanny Verdict Shocks Britain
Oct. 31, 1997
ELTON, England (AP) _ Incredulity and outrage over a British nanny's murder conviction began Friday in her rural hometown _ where people holding vigil in a pub sang ``You'll never walk alone'' _ and spread like wildfire to cities across the nation.
Britons were fiercely critical of American justice, knocking its televised courtrooms, elected prosecutors and the practice of shackling the accused. Some 100,000 people called a Sky Television phone-in line, the overwhelming majority of them insisting that 19-year-old au pair Louise Woodward had an unfair trial.
The Rigger pub in this northwest English village where she had lived erupted with sobs, groans and angry shouts when the guilty verdict was announced about 2:30 a.m. Friday (9:30 p.m. EST Thursday.) Hundreds of family friends and neighbors, most wearing yellow ribbons, had communed there day after day to await the decision, swinging between anger and hope.
But the Cambridge, Mass., trial of the au pair accused of murdering a baby boy gripped thousands of other Britons, too _ especially since televised trials are barred in Britain.
The unprecedented sight of a fresh-faced, sobbing British girl being convicted of murder on television fueled the sense of outrage. That grew after she received the mandatory sentence of life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 15 years.
``We won't give up, I'll tell you that. We will make these people think twice,'' said 60-year-old Ron Deegan, who hung sheets outside his Elton home bearing the slogan ``Justice _ No Way.''
Though some also expressed shock at the use of shackles in U.S. trials, Woodward was not restrained during the proceedings. However, she did wear ankle and wrist constraints during her initial court appearance in February.
In The Rigger, the phone buzzed with sympathetic calls from the United States and across Britain. In London, the U.S. Embassy reported a steady stream of critical calls.
In this village of 2,000 that Woodward left to taste life in America, all the talk was of Louise. While her schoolteachers recalled a quiet, calm girl, friends remembered the fun times, walking and cycling in the surrounding hills.
``This is a girl who went to America because she had a great passion for children,'' said 19-year-old Kate Hagan, Woodward's best friend from her school days.
Residents gathered for prayers at St. John's Anglican Church to support carpenter Gary Woodward, his wife Sue and their younger daughter Victoria. Neighbors already had raised $22,600 to send Louise's parents to America for the trial; now, they are starting a new fund to fight the conviction and try to bring their girl home.
``We looked on America as our very close neighbor, yet their system has entirely failed Louise,'' said Hazel Mayamba-Kasongo, a resident.
Hope grew, however, when the judge explained that one option on appeal was to seek a manslaughter verdict, since there is no minimum sentence for manslaughter.
Elton residents were unwavering in their conviction that Woodward spoke the truth when she said she never manhandled or shook 8-month-old Matthew Eappen and did not know how he received fatal brain injuries.
Woodward's attorneys were so confident they would get their client off that they rejected several plea bargain offers, meaning Woodward would either walk free or spend her life in prison. That sort of all-or-nothing choice is unthinkable in Britain, where jurors on their own can render a manslaughter verdict _ even if the charge is murder.
``The gamble that was applied in this case was perhaps a gamble at the expense of Louise Woodward,'' said Bruce Holder, a British lawyer who is also a member of the American Bar Association.
In a television interview Friday evening, Louise's parents, who had sat in frozen silence in the courtroom when the verdict was announced, said they were astounded by the verdict.
``We were instructed not to show any reaction at all, whatever the verdict,'' Gary Woodward told Britain's Independent Television. ``And that was very hard. I just wanted to run over to her, to comfort her, but what could I say?''
Sue Woodward said she hoped trials would never be televised in Britain, saying her daughter's proceedings were treated as ``a piece of entertainment.''
London's Evening Standard, however, called the U.S. process ``demonstratively open and fair.''
``There is an unattractive tendency in this country ... whenever a British citizen is found guilty in a foreign court of presuming there must be something wrong with the system of justice,'' the newspaper said in an editorial.