November 11, 1997 in Nation/World

Judge Sets Convicted Au Pair Free Ruling Assailed For Leniency; Prosecution Vows To Appeal

William F. Doherty Boston Globe

Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair who faced life in prison for the death of a baby in her care, walked from a Cambridge courtroom to freedom Monday after a judge reduced her murder conviction to manslaughter and sentenced her to the time she already has spent behind bars.

In a day filled with delays and legal drama, Judge Hiller Zobel used his power to correct what he called a “miscarriage of justice,” ruling that while the teenager may have been “rough” with 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, she did not act with malice.

“After intensive, cool, calm reflection, I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice,” the judge said.

The ruling - and Zobel’s sentence - touched off cheers from crowds outside the Cambridge courthouse and inside a pub in the teenager’s tiny hometown of Elton, England. People around the world watched on television.

Zobel could have sentenced Woodward to up to 20 years in prison for the death of the baby, who slipped into a coma caused by a skull fracture and brain hemorrhaging.

“In selecting the sentence here I do not denigrate Matthew Eappen’s death nor his family’s grief,” Zobel said.

Before announcing the sentence, Zobel asked Woodward if she wanted to say anything. “I just maintain what I said at my last sentencing - that I am innocent,” she said.

Woodward showed little reaction as the sentence was imposed, but her parents, Susan and Gary Woodward, embraced, and her father appeared to cry.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike said they will appeal, and Woodward agreed to stay in Massachusetts pending the outcome. The state probation department will keep custody of her passport.

The case, which became an international phenomenon, was televised nationally and in Europe and attracted attention equal to the murder trial of O.J. Simpson three years ago.

At a press conference after Monday’s hearing, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, one of Woodward’s lawyers, said her client wants to indulge in the simple pleasures of freedom after nine months in prison. All she wants, Sharp said, is “to walk to the end of the corner. To catch a bus. To buy a Coke. To make herself a cup of tea. To be a free person.”

Meanwhile, District Attorney Thomas Reilly said Zobel’s decisions “sickened and saddened” him.

“I don’t believe there was any justice for Matthew Eappen in that courtroom today,” Reilly said at a separate press conference. The 279 days Woodward served, he noted, were only a a few days longer than Matthew’s brief life.

The prosecutor said Matthew’s parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, were “devastated.”

“Say a prayer for them,” Reilly said. “They were victimized once, and they were victimized again” by “an incredibly bizarre series of events.”

Quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Adams, Zobel wrote that the jury’s verdict should be overruled in “the interests of justice.”

In his view, Zobel wrote, Woodward was frustrated by her inability to quiet Matthew’s crying. The evidence showed that Woodward acted out of “confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice.”

“She was ‘a little rough with him,’ under circumstances where another, perhaps wiser, person would have sought to restrain the physical impulse,” he wrote. “The roughness was sufficient to start (or restart) a bleeding that escalated fatally.

“This sad scenario is, in my judgment, after having heard all the evidence and considered the interests of justice, most fairly characterized as manslaughter, not mandatory-life-sentence murder.”

Zobel then set a 3 p.m. hearing to sentence Woodward.

Prosecutor Gerard Leone Jr. argued that Woodward should serve between 15 and 20 years in prison for Matthew’s death. “The defendant has not acknowledged doing anything to Matthew Eappen that would equate with manslaughter,” Leone said. “The defendant has never, never shown any remorse for the killing of Matthew Eappen.”

But defense lawyer Andrew Good urged Zobel to release Woodward with credit for the time she already served at a state prison in Framingham while awaiting trial.

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