Louise Woodward case
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28 February 1978|
Elton, Cheshire, England
|Occupation||Au pair at the time, now a dance instructor|
The Louise Woodward case concerned Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British au pair convicted in 1997 of the involuntary manslaughter of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen while he was in her care in his home in Newton, Massachusetts, in the United States.
Five days after being admitted to Children's Hospital in Boston, Matthew Eappen fell into a coma and died on February 9, 1997, from a fractured skull and subdural hematoma. He was also found to have a fractured wrist, an unnoticed and unexplained injury from a month earlier. Dr. Lois E.H. Smith, M.D., Ph.D., an ophthalmologist at the hospital, observed retinal hemorrhages judged characteristic of shaken-baby syndrome.
In a statement to the police, Woodward said that she "popped the baby on the bed". There was a dispute in her case over the use of the word popped: in British English, this phrase means "put" or "placed", and she claimed she was saying that she "placed the baby on the bed". In American English, popped suggests violence. Her defense lawyers argued to the jury that the word popped does not have the same meaning as in American English. However, in addition to "popping" him on the bed, the police maintained that she also said that she dropped him on the floor at one point and that she had been "a little rough" with him. The police officer who interviewed her immediately after the incident adamantly insists that she never used the word popped, but in fact said that she "dropped" the baby on the bed.
Woodward was arrested on February 5 and held for assault and battery initially, then murder when Matthew died. A grand jury decided on a first-degree murder charge in March. She was denied bail and held until trial in MCI-Framingham prison, maximum security "awaiting trial" unit.
Media coverage of the case was intense, nowhere more so than in Britain. Before the trial, the defense tried to move it to another city, arguing that a local jury would be too biased to render a fair verdict. The judge disagreed and denied the defense motion.
The presiding judge was Hiller B. Zobel. The prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Gerard Leone, along with Assistant District Attorney Martha Coakley, presented eight physicians involved in Matthew's care, including a neurosurgeon, an ophthalmologist, a radiologist, two pathologists, and an expert in child abuse, who testified to their belief that his injuries had occurred as a result of violent shaking and from his head impacting with a hard surface. The defense challenged this, among other things, on the grounds that there were no neck injuries to him—injuries that they claimed would have been expected if he had been violently shaken. The prosecution had also claimed initially that his impact injuries were the equivalent of having been thrown from a two-story building, but they equivocated over this claim as the trial progressed. The defense presented expert medical testimony that his injury may have occurred three weeks before the date of death, implying that his parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, both of whom were doctors, might be implicated in negligence or abuse of the child. He had old wrist injuries that may have been incurred before Woodward even arrived at the house. She, however, claimed under cross-examination that she never noticed any slight bumps, marks, or any unusual behavior by him at any time prior to the night he was taken to the hospital.
The lead counsel at Woodward's trial, and the architect of her medical and forensic defense, was Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project. Scheck was hired and paid for by her employer EF Education First's Cultural Care Au Pair. As part of the defense strategy, her attorneys requested that the jury not be given the option of convicting her of manslaughter (a lesser included offense), and instead either convict her of murder or find her not guilty. When personally questioned about this decision by the judge, she agreed with her lawyers. Legal experts speculated that the motivation for this strategy was to help EF Education First avoid a civil lawsuit from the Eappens. EF's screening process and training for au pairs had come under scrutiny; she had only received three days of training. If the death had been pre-meditated then under Massachusetts law EF Education First could not be held responsible. However, if the death was not pre-meditated then it would indicate fault with EF Education First's Cultural Care Au Pair.
On 30 October 1997, after 26 hours of deliberations, the jury found her guilty of second-degree murder. The following day, Judge Zobel sentenced her to life in prison with a minimum of 15 years to be served.
Woodward's legal team filed post-conviction motions to the trial court, and the hearing opened on 4 November. In the days following the verdict it emerged that the jury had been split about the murder charge, but those who had favoured an acquittal were persuaded to accept a conviction. This fact was of no legal consequence, however. None of the jury "thought she tried to murder him," one member said.
On 10 November, at a post-conviction relief hearing, Judge Zobel reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter, stating that "the circumstances in which the defendant acted were characterised by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense supporting a conviction for second-degree murder," adding: "I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice".
Woodward's sentence was reduced to time served (279 days) and she was freed. Assistant District Attorney Gerald Leone then appealed the judge's decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Woodward's lawyers also asked the court to throw out her manslaughter conviction. The court affirmed the guilty verdict by a 7–0 vote. However, in a 4–3 split decision the court rejected the prosecution's appeal against the reduction of the conviction to involuntary manslaughter, and the sentence, on 16 June 1998. Woodward then returned to the United Kingdom.
Before the trial on 7 May 1997, Woodward decided to undergo a polygraph examination conducted by Dr. David C. Raskin, a polygraph examiner hired by her own lawyers. During the course of the examination, she was asked questions about whether she caused injury to Matthew while he was in her care on 4 February 1997. She denied having caused any injuries to him, and Dr. Raskin concluded that her answers to these questions were truthful to a confidence level of 95 percent. Dr. Raskin's results were evaluated by Dr. Charles Honts, another polygrapher hired by her defense lawyers, who also claimed that she had answered truthfully when responding to relevant questions about whether she had injured him.
On returning home Woodward gave a press conference, which was broadcast live in the UK and Boston. She said that she would be giving an interview to the BBC, for no money, and wanted to return to her life. The interview was conducted by Martin Bashir in a special edition of the flagship BBC programme Panorama, in which she maintained her innocence. However, once she was no longer subject to criminal exposure, Woodward did finally admit to "lightly shaking" to revive the baby who died in her care.
Matthew's parents filed a civil lawsuit to prevent Woodward from earning any profits from selling her story. She lost the lawsuit by default as her legal costs were no longer covered by the nanny agency.
Woodward studied law at London South Bank University, where she graduated with a 2:2 (Hons) degree in July 2002. In 2004, she began a training contract (the two-year training at an accredited firm that aspiring solicitors must serve) with the law firm Ainley North Halliwell, in Oldham, Greater Manchester. However, she dropped out of her training contract the following year in order to pursue a career as a ballroom and Latin dance teacher in Chester.
In 2007, Woodward was named the "most notorious criminal convicted in Massachusetts" by Boston law magazine Exhibit A.
Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist at Stanford University, was a key prosecution witness in the trial, but in 2011, said he would not give the same testimony today. He said there had been a revolution in the understanding of head injuries in the past decade, partly due to advances in MRI brain scanning technology: "We started realizing there were a number of medical conditions that can affect a baby's brain and look like the findings that we used to attribute to shaken baby syndrome or child abuse", such as infections and in utero strokes.
- Murder of Kristie Fischer
- Deaths of Lucia and Leo Krim, in which a nanny was accused of killing two children in her care.
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- BBC News, 23 June 1998, "UK: Woodward, no love for the Eappens" Written record of the Martin Bashir interview
- A Syndrome on Trial a documentary from Retro Report