Au Pair's Hometown Joy is Mitigated
Nov. 10, 1997
ELTON, England (AP) _ Car horns blared, champagne corks popped and fireworks exploded overhead Monday night as residents of this small town celebrated the release of neighbor Louise Woodward, whose life sentence in the death of an infant was reduced by a U.S. judge.
Scores of the au pair's supporters crammed shoulder to shoulder in a local pub to claim success in what they had worked for as a group for nine months: Woodward's freedom.
Between toasts with champagne and ale, the tearful and jubilant crowd set a new goal _ overturning the 19-year-old au pair's conviction.
``The next thing after we get her home is to fight to clear the girl's name,'' said resident Ron Deegan. ``We believe she's innocent. Nothing has ever made us waver in that thought, and nothing ever will.''
Woodward originally had been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 15 years for the Feb. 9 death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. She was convicted of shaking the boy violently, causing his death several days later.
But Judge Hiller B. Zobel in Cambridge, Mass., reduced the conviction from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter Monday. Hours later, he sentenced her to 279 days _ the time she had already served in jail.
``I didn't expect it at all,'' said an overwhelmed Vicky Woodward, the au pair's younger sister, as supporters hugged and cheered her. ``I've just spoken to my sister. She wants to say thank you to everybody. ... I just can't wait for her to come home.''
She said her sister had expected the judge to reduce her sentence to 10 years in prison.
Residents in this north England village packed The Rigger pub wearing yellow ribbons on their shirts and hats. The crowd exploded in cheers and exchanged exuberant hugs after learning that Woodward would be freed.
They burst into rounds of ``She's coming home, she's coming home'' to the tune of a soccer song and held aloft a yellow banner reading ``Thank you, Judge Zobel.'' It was signed ``Elton.''
``We've got the news that really we should have had all along,'' said a tearful Audrey McCarvell. ``The evidence was there to be seen. We have had the majority of the world behind us.''
``We'll certainly have a party when Louise comes home,'' said another supporter, David Bennett.
That won't be immediately. Zobel ordered her to remain in Massachusetts until the prosecution's appeal of her sentence reduction runs its course.
But the stalwart residents of Elton have gotten used to waiting.
Day after day, members of the ``Louise Woodward Campaign for Justice'' _ just about everyone in the village _ had gathered in The Rigger to keep vigil and gather strength from each other.
They also raised nearly $480,000 for her defense by soliciting donations and selling the yellow ribbons that festooned every available surface in town. Organizers said some contributions came from the United States.
``A very big thank you to the American people who supported Louise,'' Elton supporter Keith Harper said Monday night. ``The campaign will continue until Louise walks back into the village innocent.''
``Justice has been done,'' said Patrick McGibbern. ``After the verdict, I was disgusted. I felt something had to be done, and got involved. I've worked every minute of every day. It worked. I haven't cried in a long time, but I feel like it now.''