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Murder or Not?

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JANET BURQUEST VIVIDLY remembers how she and her girlfriends felt in June of last year as Louise Woodward, then a freshly minted 18-year-old high school graduate, prepared to depart their small village of Elton, England, for a year as an au pair in America. “We kept saying how lucky and brave she was,” Burquest recalls. “She was so lucky to be going to America for a year. So brave that she was going to be living with a family she hadn’t met.”

Indeed, there was no telling what adventures might lie in store for a girl with such gumption, however dreary the duties awaiting her. Yet no one on either side of the Atlantic could have imagined the drama that would unfold with Louise Woodward at its heart.

When Woodward was found guilty, in a Cambridge, Mass., court on Oct. 30, of murdering Matthew Eappen, the 8-month-old baby in her care, Burquest and virtually everyone else in Elton was certain she was the victim of a horrifying miscarriage of justice. Friends and neighbors had watched in disbelief as the verdict was read and Woodward cried out in anguish, “I didn’t do anything…I’m only 19.”

But for Matthew Eappen’s parents, Sunil, 31, an anesthesiologist, and his wife, Deborah, 32, an ophthalmologist, the jury’s decision brought a sense of resolution, if not truly the end of a tragic chapter in the life of their family. There remained a detectable bitterness. Said Deborah Eappen of Woodward after the verdict: “She didn’t look scary. She didn’t look like a monster.”

Convicted of second degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 15 years, Woodward can only hope now that Judge Hiller Zobel will not feel that justice would be served by taking so much of her life and that he will find a way to reduce her sentence. For her part, Woodward’s mother, Sue, 41, has vowed to stay in this country until her daughter can accompany her back to England. “She won’t go home without Louise,” said longtime family friend Jean Jones.

Woodward’s defenders point to her character as proof of her innocence. Elton (pop. 4,000), near the historic town of Chester, is a working-class village some 200 miles northwest of London. Louise and her sister Vicky, 18, had lived their entire lives there, most recently in a tidy two-story house with their mother, an administrator for a local college, and their father, Gary, 42, a carpenter. “The Woodwards are right people, raising right kids,” says David Smith, a bar-keep at the Rigger pub, which Gary frequents. By all accounts, Louise was enormously popular with her peers. A cheerful, friendly girl, she acquired the nickname Loopy Loo for her quirky sense of humor. She is also remembered as such a gentle soul that in her early teens Louise became a vegetarian because of her love for living creatures, and she once even insisted that a friend pull her car over to the side of the road so Louise could rescue a spider from the windshield.

Woodward was a good student at Helsby High School, but was uncertain about a career, which led her to sign on with the Cambridge, Mass.-based EF Au Pair after she saw a poster touting the child-care program. EF Au Pair is one of eight firms sanctioned by the U.S. government to bring foreign youths to this country as child-care workers—the premise being that the au pairs and families benefit from the cultural exchange and the parents get relatively inexpensive babysitters. (Woodward was being paid about $125 a week plus room and board, a third of what many professional nannies in this country receive.)

It seemed, to people in Elton, like a perfect fit. Woodward had a reputation in town as a thoroughly trustworthy babysitter. Not only that, she took special delight in playing with the children in her care. Starting when she was 14, Woodward babysat twice a week for neighbor Debbie Lalor’s young daughter Georgina. Lalor says Georgina was so smitten with Woodward that she would wait eagerly at the window for her arrival. “I think that speaks volumes,” says Lalor. “Matthew’s death couldn’t be because of this girl.”

Of course there can be a world of difference between occasional babysitting and the relentless demands of virtually full-time child care, particularly involving an infant and a toddler. At the trial the prosecution sketched a portrait of Woodward and her job performance that was far from flattering. She and the Eappens, who live in the Boston suburb of Newton, clashed from the first over her hours. She didn’t want a curfew, but they complained she was staying out far too late on work nights, spending part of her evenings in Boston bars. It was brought out that she had seen the musical Rent 20 times.

According to other testimony at the trial, Woodward resented the restrictions on her social life. One former friend said Woodward had complained to her that Matthew and his older brother Brendan, now 3, were “demanding” and “spoilt” and that Woodward had singled out the 8-month-old as a “brat.” Late last January the Eappens told Woodward that she had to shape up and start getting in earlier or she would be fired.

It was her frustration, the prosecution maintained, that led Woodward to kill Matthew on Feb. 4, five days after the Eappens’ ultimatum, by violently shaking him and striking his head against something hard. It was Woodward who called 911 that afternoon, crying to the dispatcher, “Help! There’s a baby! He’s barely breathing!” She later explained that she had come into Matthew’s bedroom to get him from his nap, only to discover that he was pale and nearly unconscious. She had tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and, hoping to rouse him, had lightly shaken him. Minutes later, Matthew was rushed to Boston’s famed Children’s Hospital, where he slipped into a coma. Five days later, when it had become clear there was no chance of recovery, the Eappens had him taken off life support. He died shortly afterward in his father’s arms. “We had to let Matty go, be free of this life’s pain,” Deborah Eappen said in court. “Despite his tubes and IVs and surgical dressing covering his head, he looked like a little prince.”

Police arrested Woodward the day after the 911 call. The circumstantial evidence against her seemed compelling. Matthew had suffered a 2½-inch fracture at the back of his skull, as well as internal bleeding. Moreover, police officers responding to the 911 call said Woodward told them she might have been “a little rough” with the youngster that day, and that she might have “dropped” him on some towels she had laid on the floor after his bath.

On the witness stand, Woodward denied telling police she had mistreated Matthew. She said they had misunderstood her when she said she had “popped” him on the towels, a British colloquialism meaning “put” or “laid.” During two days of testimony, she proved to be a poised witness who made no blunders, though some viewers found her too detached and rehearsed. In her soft English-accented voice, she calmly described how Matthew had been fussy that day, but that otherwise nothing had seemed amiss. Even under intense cross-examination from lead prosecutor Gerard Leone Jr., she kept her cool, insisting that she had always taken good care of the baby, though she did concede that she was irritated at having to change his wet diaper every morning. “I thought it was kind of gross,” she said.

Woodward’s testimony aside, the case came down to which physicians the jurors believed. The prosecution’s doctors, including three who examined Matthew at Children’s Hospital, said that in their opinion he had died of violent shaking and severe head trauma. “In the medical-legal community and those people who work with abused kids, this case wasn’t a close call before it got into the courtroom,” said prosecutor Martha Coakley after the verdict. “When a child has a fractured skull in the back like Matthew Eappen, a subdural hematoma [a mass of clotted blood that forms in brain tissue as a result of a broken blood vessel] and brain swelling and retinal hemorrhages, it’s pretty clear that that has been an inflicted trauma.”

But the defense, paid for by the EF Au Pair agency and featuring Barry Scheck of O.J. “Dream Team” fame, managed to cast some doubt on that assertion. After one prosecution witness, Dr. Joseph Madsen, testified that while operating on Matthew he had inserted a needle in the boy’s head and seen a clear liquid and blood squirt out, Scheck produced a defense expert, Dr. Jan Leestma, a respected neuropathologist from Chicago, who contended that the presence of such clear fluid meant the injury could have been weeks old and therefore might have been caused by an accidental fall. Scheck also turned another prosecution witness, Dr. Kenneth Mandl, who had been on duty in the emergency room when Matthew was first brought in, to his advantage. Under cross-examination, Mandl said the child had no visible bruises on his upper body and, perhaps most significantly, no swelling in the area around the fracture. Scheck argued that the absence of swelling proved the injury had been sustained in the past, and that it had inexplicably begun bleeding again, resulting in Matthew’s death.

According to jury members’ accounts of their three-day deliberations, sorting out the competing medical scenarios was a difficult task. At least one prominent expert didn’t find this surprising. “I don’t think [either side was] blowing smoke,” says Dr. Stephen Freidberg, chairman of neurosurgery at the renowned Lahey Hitchcock Clinic outside Boston. “You had two groups of people who were looking at the same data, or different aspects of the same data, and coming to different conclusions. This isn’t totally unknown in medicine. And I think they can honestly have a difference of opinion.”

Because both Matthew’s parents are doctors, one might expect that they would have noticed signs of an existing injury. Yet X rays at Children’s Hospital revealed a wrist fracture sustained by Matthew some weeks earlier. For that and other real or imagined signs of a lack of parental involvement, the Eappens were put on trial in the court of public opinion long before Woodward’s case was gaveled to order. The couple, particularly Deborah, were often berated on Boston radio shows as greedy careerists who had entrusted their sons to an inexperienced sitter in order to save a few dollars. (“Apparently the parents didn’t want a kid,” opined one talk show caller. “Now they don’t have a kid.”) Never mind that the Eappens, still in debt from medical school, appear far from wealthy and that their modest home in Newton is next to the trolley tracks. Or that Deborah worked only three days a week so she could be with her children and often came home for lunch and to breast-feed Matthew. One of those who went out of his way to defend the Eappens’ reliance on child care was Scheck. “That’s how we live, and that’s how I raised my children,” he said outside court. “I think it’s terribly wrong for people to criticize them for that.”

But Scheck was reserving his most articulate expressions of sympathy for Woodward, in whose innocence he says he firmly believes. At the request of Woodward, the defense had taken what it believed was a reasonable risk and asked that the jury not be allowed to consider a charge of manslaughter, their feeling being that given an all-or-nothing choice the jurors would side with them. The failure of the gambit became clear when some jurors later indicated that they would have opted for manslaughter if they had been given the choice. On Nov. 4, Judge Zobel heard the defense’s arguments that he should set aside the jury’s verdict, either because it was unsupported by the evidence or simply in the interests of justice. Some observers detected in Zobel’s comments from the bench an inclination to reduce the conviction to manslaughter after all, which would enable him to cut Woodward’s sentence drastically if he chose—even giving her no prison time at all, though that seems unlikely.

Meanwhile the Eappens have tried to cope with their loss as best they can. Perhaps the one who has had the hardest time accepting that Matthew is gone is Brendan. At night, his mother told the court, the 3-year-old looks skyward to say good night to his baby brother. ” ‘I love you,’ ” she said he calls. ” ‘How was it up in heaven today?’ ”