June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

A few months ago, Louise Woodward, the British au pair found guilty last year of killing 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, decided she wanted to make herself useful. While staying in Marble-head, Mass., awaiting the final resolution of her case—both prosecution and defense had filed appeals—Woodward, now 20, asked local police if she could have a volunteer job caring for stray cats and dogs. In a rather brusque letter, the police turned her down flat, leaving Woodward, according to one of her lawyers, “very hurt.”

The notorious nanny’s bruised feelings got the finest salve imaginable last week when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court finally punched her ticket home. The high court upheld last year’s stunning rulings by trial court Judge Hiller Zobel, who had reduced a jury’s verdict of second-degree murder to manslaughter and knocked Woodward’s sentence of 15-to-life down to time served—279 days. The effect of the SJC’s decision was to allow Woodward to return to England, which she was expected to do as soon as possible.

Woodward’s parents and other supporters were exultant. “Absolutely fantastic!” her mother, Sue, crowed to reporters outside the family home in Elton, Cheshire. Yet Woodward will be returning home under a cloud—the first evidence of which appeared just last month when one of her lawyers, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, with whom she had earlier been staying in Marblehead, was arrested on drunk driving charges. According to a state police report, Sharp, 44, while being taken into custody, said of Woodward, “I thought she was innocent, but now I know she is guilty and I can’t handle it.” Sharp has denied ever making such a statement.

But the lawyer—since fired by Woodward—has not retreated from her allegations earlier this month that the Woodward family misappropriated money contributed by supporters to a fund in Britain for Louise’s defense. The dispute centers on an invoice for $15,400 submitted by Louise’s mother to the fund with a request for reimbursement, which was paid to her in January. According to Rev. Ken Davey, a custodian of the fund, Sue Woodward said Elaine Sharp and her husband, Dan, had billed her for the cost of living with them for seven months. But Sharp contends the invoice, on their letterhead, is a fake. She insists they never charged Sue for anything, and the Sharps have challenged Woodward to produce the cancelled check purportedly used to pay the bill.

The Woodward family insists it has done nothing wrong. But last week, Jean Jones, a close friend of the Woodwards and one of the founders of the Louise Woodward Campaign for Justice committee, disclosed that she had earlier resigned from the organization over the issue of the trust fund. In an interview with Britain’s Sky television, Jones portrayed Sue as a woman gradually consumed by greed. “It became [about] money—the money became God,” said Jones, who still believes in Louise’s innocence. “I find it sickening that something so good should turn into something like this.”

Woodward has said she wants to lead a less public life. Yet there have been rumors, which her family has denied, that she will be paid by a London tabloid for her story. As for Matthew’s parents, Drs. Sunil and Deborah Eappen, who on May 25 had their third child, Kevin (Matthew’s older brother, Brendan, is 3), they said little publicly after the high court’s decision. But on the very day of the ruling, the Eappens filed a wrongful death suit against Woodward, seeking to block her from receiving any money from movie, book and press deals. Assuming she does not, she will not have to pay a judgment, but her reputation may not be so easily spared.

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