Au pair gets life term for murder 19-year-old Briton again denies hurting infant in her care

November 01, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It has been an entertaining drama followed by millions, the show known as "The Nanny Murder Trial." But yesterday, as a 19-year-old British au pair was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she steadfastly disavows, and a pair of bereaved parents described their life of daily pain, there was a sense that the final reality of the case was: Everybody loses.

A feeling of shock and pity permeated reactions around the country, as parents who face their own child care problems and young baby-sitters alike discussed the jury's guilty verdict Thursday night -- a verdict that defense lawyers said yesterday they would challenge immediately.

Child care experts, however, moved beyond emotion to find a lesson in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen and the tremendous attention the trial of his au pair, Louise Woodward, has drawn. The country, they say, has ripened for a discussion of the woeful state of child care standards and programs when two-thirds of mothers of children under 6 in the United States now work.

"This may be a call to action that the public has a stake in ensuring the safety of young children," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York.

The murder trial, she said, forced parents to face "the dark side of things we don't want to know," to look at "our absolute worst fear."

Speaking in court, as was their right, in Woodward's sentencing yesterday, the Eappens, doctors who live in the Boston suburb of Newton, opened a window into what life is like when that worst fear has been realized.

"I loved Matty's weight in my arms, his head on my shoulder and his soft breath tickling my neck, and his gentle hand caressing my skin," Deborah Eappen recalled, "and I loved to snuggle and get cozy with my two boys."

Now, she said, "Our hearts are heavy every day with the most excruciating pain. How can we make any sense of this? How can we go on? Can we be happy again? I get flashbacks of what I envision happened to my innocent, defenseless little Matty. I am sickened to think he was crying for help and was instead beaten by hands that were supposed to be caring for him."

"She didn't look scary to me," Eappen went on. "She didn't seem like a child abuser or a monster or a murderer. We had no idea she could harm our kids. I am scared now when I hear an ambulance. I have nightmares. I'm afraid to answer the phone or door. We are not safe. The unthinkable has happened, and now anything can happen."

Woodward, her eyes swollen, was also offered the chance to speak before the sentence was pronounced.

In a small, fading voice, she said only: "I'd just like to maintain my innocence and say that I'd never have hurt Matty, and I never did hurt Matty, and I don't know what happened to him. I'm not responsible for his death. I didn't kill Matthew Eappen. That's all."

She was given the mandatory sentence of life in prison with parole possible after 15 years.

Her defense lawyers plan to ask Judge Hiller Zobel of Middlesex County Superior Court in a hearing Tuesday to set aside the verdict. Such overrides are rare but do happen, legal experts say, if a judge deems a jury's verdict fundamentally mistaken. The defense is also expected to ask to have the charges reduced and for a new trial.

Woodward's defense team, which includes Barry Scheck, who was also a member of the O. J. Simpson defense team, said it would fight her conviction.

"All the lawyers here stand united in our complete belief in this young woman's innocence and we believe it with all our heart and we will continue to fight," Scheck said.

The main thrust of the defense was that Matthew's injuries occurred weeks before the afternoon of Feb. 4, when Woodward found him barely responsive, called 911 in a panic and told police, according to their testimony, that she may have been "a little rough" with him.

He died five days later.

The prosecution argued that Woodward, frustrated with her job and Matthew's fussiness, shook him violently and slammed him into a hard object with the force of a two-story fall, fracturing his skull.

In a move hotly disputed by legal experts, the defense asked that the jury not be given an option of finding Woodward guilty of manslaughter; it was confined, instead, to choosing between acquitting her or finding her guilty of murder. In choosing second-degree murder, the jury found that she had the intent to kill but did not act with extreme atrocity, cruelty or premeditation.

The verdict, which took 27 hours to reach, stunned not only most legal commentators but many members of a public that had been following the case on Court TV and elsewhere.

"It's amazing that someone like O. J. Simpson gets off and this nanny gets convicted," said Maura Lynch, a mother of two in White Plains. "It sure makes you think twice. Nobody takes better care of your kids than you do."

Sarah Lewington, a nanny in Chicago, said of the verdict: "It shocked me, actually. I think she may have done something, but I don't think it was intentional."

Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, not only on Louise Woodward's guilt but on the Eappens' degree of complicity for hiring an inexperienced au pair instead of a more expensive, but more professional, nanny. The French term au pair means as an equal, and an au pair, often treated as a family member, is generally much cheaper than a professional nanny, receiving only about $140 a week plus room and board.

"This girl didn't have proper experience or training," said Tanya Young, owner of Next Best Thing to Mom, a national nanny agency based in Naples, Fla. "The parents were doctors, too. They certainly were financially capable of paying for a proper nanny."

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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