In a verdict that's roiling two nations, a jury disagrees and finds that a British au pair murdered her 8-month-old charge by shaking him to death. Inside the trial--and its aftermath
WHEN THE JURY'S VERDICT--guilty of murder in the second degree--was announced in Cambridge, Mass., it was hard to tell who was most horrified. The defendant, Louise Woodward, slumped and wailed, ""I didn't do anything . . . I'm only 19!'' Her four lawyers tried to comfort her, but they looked almost as miserable as they realized that their high-stakes legal gamble had just failed--and their client faced life in prison. The verdict was of little consolation to the parents of Matthew Eappen, the 8-month-old baby whom Louise Woodward shook to death. And in a pub in the English village of Elton, Woodward's hometown, the locals screamed at the TV in disbelief.
The wave of incredulity and denial that swept over two countries was understandable. The trial of Woodward awakened a deep dread. In America, where two out of three parents with children under the age of 6 work outside the home, guilt and apprehension lurk behind the hurried hugs at the front door and the exaggerated waves at the day-care center. The Eappens could have been any professional couple, trying each morning not to doubt the wisdom of leaving their infant in the care of a strange teenager from a foreign land. In Britain, where trials are not televised, the Woodward case was regarded as a cross between a Roman circus and a frontier lynching. In fact, it was one of the more intriguing legal dramas of the age--one that leaves unresolved a mystery of sickening fascination to parents everywhere.
Louise Woodward made a most unlikely murderer. ""She didn't look scary,'' said Deborah Eappen. ""She didn't look like a monster.'' Milk-fed and jolly--her friends called her ""Loopy Lou''--Woodward was a warm sister in a big English family; she loved animals and small children. She was planning on attending university, but first she wanted to visit the United States for a year. Like thousands of teenage girls all over the world, Louise got a job as an au pair with an American family. Americans tend to use the terms ""au pair'' and ""nanny'' interchangeably, but there is a difference. Nannies are formally trained in child care and are paid upwards of $300 a week. Au pairs (the term roughly translates as ""equal'' in French) are teenagers who receive small salaries and expect to be treated as quasi family members in exchange for some housework and child care. Their training is minimal: in the case of Louise Woodward, it lasted four days, a whirlwind seminar conducted by a placement agency called EF Au Pair.
Louise was first sent to a family that lived 30 miles out of Boston. After five months, she was bored and switched to the Eappens, who live in the suburb of Newton, just a short subway ride from the theaters and bars of downtown Boston. Louise was paid $115 to work 45 hours a week caring for Brandon, 2, and the baby, Matthew. The Eappens are both doctors, but Deborah, an ophthalmologist, worked only a three-day week and came home at lunch to breast-feed Matthew. From the first, the Eappens and Louise quarreled. The parents wanted her to observe a curfew; Louise wanted to be free to come and go at night. At first Louise prevailed, and went out almost every evening, attending a production of the hip musical ""Rent'' more than 20 times. Often returning after midnight, she had trouble getting out of bed some mornings. In late January, the Eappens threatened to fire her unless she came in at 11 p.m. each day. Louise was not happy; she told a friend that the Eappens were ""demanding,'' that their children were ""spoilt'' and that Matthew was a ""brat.''
On Feb. 4, five days after the Eappens had confronted her about her late hours, she could not awaken Matthew from a nap. The infant's breathing was labored and his color was poor. She later said that she ""lightly shook'' Matthew to arouse him. Panicked, Louise called 911. According to the police, she admitted that she might have been ""a little rough'' with the boy. She said she had ""popped'' the baby on the bed and ""popped'' him on some towels on the floor. She later said police had misunderstood her to say ""dropped''--and she denied ever saying that she had been ""rough.'' The local prosecutor decided that she had been very rough--that she had violently shaken Matthew and cracked his skull on a blunt surface, causing fatal bleeding. Woodward was charged with murder.
The 19-year-old au pair was not the only one at risk. EF Au Pair, the company that had brought her to the United States, feared that it could be sued by the dead child's family. The agency was already facing a $100 million lawsuit brought by a family whose baby had been allegedly killed by an au pair. That suit claims that the agency, which charges a finder's fee of $4,200, had been negligent in failing to check the background of a Swiss girl named Olivia Riner. In 1991, Riner had been accused of burning down the house of the family she worked for, with the infant inside. (Acquitted, she received something of a hero's welcome when she returned to Switzerland, where she was paraded through the streets in a fire truck.)
Partly in the hope of heading off future litigation, EF Au Pair was determined to buy Louise the best possible defense. Among the high-priced lawyers it turned to was Barry Scheck. A member of O. J. Simpson's Dream Team, Scheck has a street-smart style and a photographic memory. His fee was reported to be $100,000.
Scheck and his team hired medical experts (at the cost of thousands of dollars a day) who testified that Matthew's skull fracture had occurred about three weeks before he died, and that the fatal bleeding could have been unleashed by just a slight jar. The defense implied, though it did not try to prove, that Matthew may have been injured by his ""boisterous'' older brother, Brandon. Tes- tifying for the prosecution, Dr. Joseph Madsen told of sticking a needle in Matthew's brain as he tried to save him on the operating table on the night of Feb. 4. Out spurted a jet of clear liq- uid, said the doctor. Scheck pounced. He put his own medical expert on the stand to testify that the clear liquid was a sign of an earlier injury that had been trying to heal. Scheck also got Dr. Kenneth Mandl, who first saw Matthew in the emergency room, to admit there were no bruises on his arms, shoulders or ribs, or swelling on the back of his head--in other words, no sign that Matthew had been violently shaken or battered.
The best witness for the defense was Louise herself. Speaking in her lilting English accent, she told how much she cared for children and calmly denied ever having harmed Matthew. Her testimony made convincing theater. On talk shows around the United States--and in Britain, which was riveted by the trial--callers demanded that Louise be set free.
Scheck was seen swaggering a bit as he left court toward the end of the trial. Surely, the defense team assumed, they had planted a ""reasonable doubt'' in the mind of some jurors. Indeed, the prosecution was anything but confident. According to lawyers for the defense, the prosecutor on several occasions secretly offered a deal: if Woodward pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter, she would receive a much-reduced sentence. (The prosecution denies ever having made any for- mal offer.)
Instead, Woodward's lawyers asked the court to rule out a verdict of manslaughter, and require the jury to find Woodward guilty of first- or second-degree murder--or let her walk. Woodward's lawyers did not want the jurors to compromise on manslaughter. It was to be all or nothing. The judge, Hiller Zobel, seemed doubtful. He closely questioned Louise. Did she understand what her lawyers were proposing? Did she approve? Whether because she truly believes in her innocence--or is in deep denial--Woodward supported her lawyers' bid.
The all-or-nothing strategy is not unprecedented, but it is rare. The hubris of Scheck and his team was clearly a factor. But so, perhaps, were the interests of EF Au Pair, the company footing the legal bills. A manslaughter conviction would mean that Woodward was basically guilty of negligence--that her carelessness allowed an accident causing Matthew's death. That might mean that Louise had been poorly chosen for the job or inadequately trained--a finding that could be used against EF Au Pair in the inevitable civil suit. But if the jury found Louise guilty of murder, it would be placing the blame squarely on her. Her character, not the negligence of EF Au Pair, would be to blame. In a legal brief arguing against dropping the manslaughter charge, the prosecutor strongly suggested that EF Au Pair had a conflict of interest. But EF Au Pair insisted that it had taken on Louise's defense only in the interests of ""truth'' and ""justice.''
The defense team may also have underestimated the prosecutor, Gerard Leone. In his closing argument, Leone mesmerized the jury with his description of Woodward as ""an aspiring little actress'' who had told ""half-truths and half-lies'' on the stand. Her real purpose in coming to the United States, the prosecution had said, was not to take care of children, but to get a ""visa to party.'' Throughout the trial, Louise had seemed remarkably composed. A reporter even overheard her ask her parents whether they had bought her plane ticket home. But as the jury deliberations dragged on, she became jittery, gnawing her fingernails and turning her back on the cameras.
The outcry over the verdict in Britain was immediate. ""So Unfair!'' screamed the Daily Mail. Back in Britain, one pub owner cleaned out his stock of American beer and refused to sell hamburgers. In America, F. Lee Bailey suggested on ""Larry King Live'' that the jurors may have been seeking some payback for the O.J. verdict by punishing Scheck. An alternate juror, Richard Bramante, told Boston's WBZ-TV4 that he had overheard the regular jurors saying that the defense ""went and got Scheck because they needed hocus-pocus and magic with the medical evidence.''
Scheck declared that ""the jury''--not her defense--""let Louise down.'' Scheck hopes that Judge Zobel will throw out the verdict this week. It is highly unusual for judges to second-guess juries, though Zobel has reversed jury verdicts before. If her conviction stands, Woodward may serve 15 years in jail, the minimum before she can be paroled. It seems more likely that under an international agreement, the Compact of Europe, she will be sent back to Britain, where she could get paroled earlier.
At Louise's sentencing hearing on Friday, Matthew's parents made clear that no amount of justice would suffice. ""I loved Mattie's weight in my arms, his head on my shoulder and his soft breath tickling my neck,'' Deborah Eappen recalled. Now, she said, ""our hearts are heavy every day with the most excruciating pain. How can we make any sense of this?''