Nanny abuse case stokes emotions in Boston, England Young British au pair is accused of killing infant

October 24, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Every working parent's deepest fear has a new face: one with a milkmaid's wholesome roundness, clear blue eyes and a broad, serene brow.

It belongs to 19-year-old British au pair Louise Woodward, accused of handling the baby in her care so roughly that he died of brain injuries from a force equal to a two-story fall.

Yesterday, in the most riveting moments yet in her 3-week-old murder trial, Woodward took the stand and said that she had never, and would never, hurt her charge, 9-month-old Matthew Eappen of Newton, Mass.

"I love kids," she said in a voice so soft she was repeatedly told to speak up. Woodward's defense argues that Matthew's injuries may have come weeks earlier, and that the young live-in nanny, though frustrated by her job's strictures, had always given children exemplary care.

The case, broadcast gavel-to-gavel on Court TV, has become the talk of Boston -- and of England, where cameras are not allowed in the courtroom.

There, doubts about whether Woodward is being treated fairly by the U.S. justice system, combined with the heady new experience of watching a trial unfold, have attracted so much attention that some call it Britain's version of the O. J. Simpson obsession.

But in the United States, the trial stands out from other nanny-abuse cases. Not only has it struck chords of anxiety and guilt among working parents; it has also put a spotlight on the backlash against working mothers who consign their children to the care of others.

Dr. Deborah Eappen, Matthew's mother, has received angry letters telling her that she should have stayed home with her two sons. The response to her loss, on a Web site devoted to the trial, in newspapers and in television broadcasts, has not been unmitigated sympathy.

"We've had a fair amount of criticism of her, and your heart goes out to her," said Erik Sorenson, head of programming for Court TV, which regularly broadcasts phone calls from viewers during the trial.

Not that it was such an unusual lifestyle. Eappen, an ophthalmologist, worked three days a week and often lunched at home. Her husband, Sunil, is an anesthesiologist; they and their older son, Brendan, live in a modest house in Newton, a heavily professional suburb of Boston.

The au pair system -- under which young foreigners are brought to this country under a program overseen by the United States Information Agency -- plays an intrinsic role in Woodward's trial, because the prosecution is arguing that the young woman, chafing at the strictures of her job, took out her anger and resentment on baby Matthew.

Prosecutors say Woodward, who came to the United States in mid-1996 to take a year off between high school and college, was furious that the Eappens wanted to impose a curfew on her. It would have put a crimp into a social life that included seeing the Boston production of the musical "Rent" at least 20 times, they said.

Prosecution witnesses said Woodward had told them she disliked her job, and medical experts testified that it appeared the baby had been shaken violently and slammed against an object. A police officer who came to the house after Woodward, noticing the baby was semiconscious and barely breathing, phoned 911, said she told him she had been "a little rough" with the baby.

But the defense has produced its own forensic experts to argue that Matthew Eappen's brain injuries could have been sustained weeks earlier. It argues that the injuries merely became aggravated on Feb. 4, the day Woodward phoned 911.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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