A case of manslaughter: Au pair freed: Judge reduces verdict after defense strategy backfires case leaves unanswered questions about child care dilemmas.

November 11, 1997

IT IS rare for a judge to change a jury's verdict. But few people were even angry yesterday when Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel reduced the second-degree murder conviction of a British au pair for the death of an infant in her care. The new verdict of involuntary manslaughter allowed the judge to reduce Louise Woodward's sentence to the 279 days she has already served in jail rather than a mandatory 15 years before being eligible for parole,

Now the 19-year-old can go home to her village in Cheshire, where people were determined to see their daughter vindicated and rescued from an American justice system that has seemed to many Britons rigid and unjust. Meanwhile, Americans -- especially the working parents of small children -- are left to ponder this case and the public reaction to it.

Although most people seemed to reject the notion that Ms. Woodward should serve 15 years before parole, the jury was given a stark choice -- acquittal or second-degree murder with its long mandatory sentence. Defense lawyers felt they could plant enough doubts about the medical evidence to force an acquittal. It didn't work. Jurors did not feel Louise Woodward was entirely without blame.

Judge Zobel's decision has restored a sense of balance in this tragic case. What he cannot do is restore the life of young Matthew Eappen or the innocence of Louise Woodward. Neither can he restore a sense of security to Deborah and Sunil Eappen, who tried to arrange their medical careers to spend as much time as possible with their young children. Now they find themselves blamed by many people for abandoning these children to an au pair.

"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)," Judge Zobel wrote. Sadly, those words could describe thousands of child care situations, regardless of the parents' economic circumstances or professional standing.

Yet au pair programs, which appeal to young people looking for adventure more than to people dedicated to working with young children, are one of the few ways in which families with infants and small-children can employ live-in help. As this case shows, that system has plenty of flaws. Maybe this case will steer policy debates about child care toward realistic solutions that protect the interests and needs of both children and families.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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