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Au Pair Called Victim Of Rush To Judgment In Closing Arguments Jury Deliberates For Five Hours Without Reaching A Verdict

Wed., Oct. 29, 1997, midnight

The jury hearing a murder case against a young British au pair recessed Tuesday evening after deliberating for five hours without reaching a verdict.

The au pair, Louise Woodward, 19, has been accused of murdering 8-month-old Matthew Eappen by vigorously shaking him and hitting his head against a hard surface.

She has denied that charge, and her lawyers, in closing arguments Tuesday, said she is a victim of a rush to judgment by doctors, police and prosecutors.

As her parents looked on, Woodward appeared solemn as she listened to closing arguments.

Also looking on were Matthew’s parents, Deborah and Sunil Eappen.

The three-week trial drew intense media attention, largely because it crystallized worries that many working parents have about placing their young children in the care of strangers.

To some, however, the baby’s parents were on trial, too. Deborah Eappen, an ophthalmologist who had returned to work three days a week after the birth of her second son, reported receiving hate mail from people who said she is to blame for not staying home.

Woodward was caring for Matthew and his 2-year-old brother in the Eappens’ home in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Newton while the parents were at work Feb. 4. She said she noticed that Matthew had lost consciousness and tried to revive him, then called 911.

Prosecutors charged that Woodward, in a “rage” brought on by frustration with her working conditions, shook the baby violently and slammed him against a hard surface.

The baby was rushed to Boston’s Children’s Hospital, where he died five days later. Local prosecutors promptly charged Woodward with murder.

The jury of nine women and three men began deliberating shortly after noon, following legal instructions from state Superior Court Judge Hiller B. Zobel.

At Woodward’s request, Zobel ruled that the jury would have a simple choice: either guilty of murder or not. Under state law, the defense may ask the judge to take away the option of finding a murder defendant guilty of a lesser charge such as manslaughter.

Woodward and her lawyers gambled that the defense had raised sufficient doubt about how the boy had died. To convict on first-degree murder, Zobel told jurors, they would have to find that, beyond a reasonable doubt, Woodward had committed an unjustified killing with premeditation or with “cruelty and atrocity.”

About an hour into deliberations, jurors asked for clarification of the distinction between first- and second-degree murder.

In his closing statement, prosecutor Gerard Leone Jr. sneered at the defense’s “high-priced theatrical production” and repeated the government’s view that Woodward had killed the baby in a violent outburst.

Defense attorney Barry Scheck, who was a member of the O.J. Simpson legal team, expressed the theory that the baby had sustained a brain injury as early as three weeks before his death.

The cost of the defense - estimated at as much as $750,000 - was paid entirely by EF Au Pair of Cambridge, which had placed Woodward in the Eappens’ home. EF Au Pair is one of more than a dozen agencies nationwide that participate in the government-sponsored au pair program, which matches young men and women from Europe with American families.

The Middlesex County Courthouse was ringed by more than a dozen television satellite trucks, carrying live coverage to viewers across the United States and in Britain.

The maximum penalty Woodward faces if convicted of first-degree murder is life without parole. The Massachusetts House - spurred in part by Matthew Eappen’s death and by a series of recent murders of women and children - began debate Tuesday on restoring the death penalty.


 

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