It was not the verdict, it was the sentence.
Sunil and Deborah Eappen could live with a manslaughter verdict for the girl who killed their infant son. What was incomprehensible Monday to the parents of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen was that their 19-year-old British au pair would walk out of a Massachusetts court free.
The reduction by Judge Hiller Zobel of the jury finding against Louise Woodward from second degree murder to manslaughter took them aback, but the judge’s decision to release Louise Woodward from custody struck the Newton, Mass. couple as a miscarriage of justice.
“He mentioned in his decision that he was a grandfather,” said Dr. Sunil Eappen, the father of the dead baby.
“What if Matthew had been his grandson? Doesn’t he get it? Someone killed Matthew. He acknowledges on the one hand that someone killed Matthew and on the other hand he frees her. It makes no sense.”
“Compassion for whom? For Louise?” asked Dr. Deborah Eappen. “For a defendant who didn’t ask for compassion? For a defendant who didn’t take responsibility, who denies what she did, who is in denial about the seriousness of her actions?”
Denial. What the Eappens see as denial accounts for a big part of their reaction to what transpired Monday in that Cambridge, Mass. courthouse. “I respect the judge,” said Deborah Eappen. “But I think there is something in him, in all of us, that does not want to believe that people who look like Louise could do what Louise did. We want to believe that people who hurt children look nothing like us but, the truth is, they look too much like us. Louise killled Matty and Judge Zobel at once admits that and then does not make her take responsibility for what she did. Would he do that for a poor black or Hispanic defendant?”
They were exhausted. Their only dream had been to have a family and contribute to their community but, somehow, in the glare of the public spotlight, their hard work had been transformed into an ugly, selfish impulse that had nothing to do with two working class people who had struggled through college and the University of Illinois Medical School.
“They hate us,” said Deborah, of those sending the nasty mail she and Sunil have received during the trial. “They think they know who we are and we don’t recognize the people they see. I guess that’s the part that most breaks our hearts. People are willfully denying how much we loved Matty in order not to face the fact that they could go out to dinner, leave their children with a baby sitter, and this could have happened to them, to any of us.”
The defense says it has science on its side, that in the appeals process Louise will be vindicated, but Deborah Eappen said the defense is appealing to that part of all of us which does not want to accept that anyone would willfully hurt a child. “It’s a fantasy,” she said. “We want to believe that those who hurt children are monsters, but the sad fact is they look very ordinary, very much like all of us. The danger of Judge Zobel’s ruling is that he has excused as youth and inexperience what was really child abuse. At our most frustrated, parents and caregivers don’t kill babies.”
Sunil and Deborah Eappen fled to New Hampshire last weekend with their 3-year-old-son, Brendan, for relief from the media onslaught that has beset their family in the last few weeks.
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