Judge frees au pair, changes murder verdict to manslaughter Life term reduced to time served

November 11, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- After 279 days in a U.S. prison, English au pair Louise Woodward walked free yesterday.

In an astonishing turnabout in a trial that has been followed by millions on both sides of the Atlantic, Woodward was released by a state Superior Court judge who reduced her murder conviction to involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her only to the time she had already served.

"It is my judgment that it is time to bring the judicial part of this extraordinary matter to a compassionate conclusion," said Judge Hiller B. Zobel. In contrast to the keening sobs that burst from Woodward on Oct. 30 when the jury found her guilty, she showed no emotion yesterday when the judge, who had admonished the court against any emotional reaction, announced his decision.

As the sentence was read, Gary Woodward, the defendant's father, clasped his hand over his face and began to cry. His wife, Sue, stood up, smiled, and the couple embraced.

Later, accompanied by her parents, Woodward got into a vehicle with tinted windows in the basement parking garage and left with a police motorcycle escort.

The ruling unleashed streams of champagne and tears in England, where thousands have rallied for Woodward's defense and nearly the entire country seemed obsessed by her case.

Zobel, in a 16-page decision he released belatedly over the Internet after a technical glitch, found that Woodward's conviction of second-degree murder in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, the baby in her care, had been a "miscarriage of justice." Exercising a rarely used judicial power, he reduced the conviction to manslaughter.

"I believe that the circumstances in which Defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice (in the legal sense) supporting a conviction for second-degree murder," he wrote.

Though some praised his decision as Solomonic because it held Woodward responsible for the baby's death without unduly punishing her for what seemed unintentional, both the prosecution and the defense immediately announced steps to fight it.

Woodward's defense lawyers said they planned to appeal her conviction until they completely clear her name and prove her innocence; prosecutors immediately moved to block the decision and Woodward's release.

"I'm sickened by what happened," said Gerard T. Leone Jr., the lead prosecutor in the case. He said he could not explain how a judge could find Woodward responsible for killing the son of Sunil and Deborah Eappen of Newton, Mass., but then have her serve "approximately the same amount of time as the days that Matthew spent with his mother and father. There just aren't words."

The Eappens were out of town and unavailable for comment.

The child's grandfather, a pediatrician named Dr. Sunil Eappen, told the BBC that the family was "outraged and disappointed" and that Woodward's sentence was "totally inadequate."

Woodward made no public statements, but Elaine Whitfield Sharp, one of her lawyers, spoke on her behalf at a news conference, saying she had only a brief message: "Louise is innocent! Louise is free! And Louise thanks all of you out there and all of you in this room who continued to believe in her innocence during the darkest days of her life."

Woodward was ordered to remain in Massachusetts and surrender her passport until all appeal processes are completed.

Alan Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School who worked briefly for the defense, said he thought yesterday's outcome vindicated the legal system: "It shows we have checks and balances even within our judiciary, and judges can check juries," he said.

Others questioned Zobel's wisdom in overriding a jury that had issued a decision that, as the judge himself admitted, could be supported by the facts in the case.

"It may well have been that without this publicity, he wouldn't have made this 180-degree turn," said Paul Robinson, a professor of law at Northwestern University and an expert on sentencing.

Most legal experts agreed that the judge's decision constituted a correction of a gamble that turned out to be a monumental blunder by Woodward's lawyers.

With her permission, they chose to ask that the jury be given only the choice between convicting her of murder -- not manslaughter -- or acquitting her. After 27 hours of deliberation, the jury found Woodward guilty of second-degree murder.

Zobel emphasized in a preamble to his decision that he had not been influenced by popular opinion supporting Woodward, writing: "Judges must follow their oaths and do their duty, heedless of editorials, letters, telegrams, picketers, threats, petitions, panelists and talk shows. In this country, we do not administer justice by plebiscite."

Rather, Zobel wrote, his decision turned on his conviction, after hearing all the evidence in Woodward's trial, that she had injured the baby but in a state of "confusion, fright and bad judgment, rather than rage or malice." Such an act fit best into a definition of manslaughter, he wrote.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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