Another trial of the century

November 12, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Deep down in the decision that Judge Hiller Zobel set before a hungry international audience was a paragraph of self-defense. ''Massachusetts,'' he wrote, ''never has and does not now view Justice as a handmaiden to Tyche, the Goddess of Good Fortune. . . . A court . . . is not a casino.''

Maybe not. Maybe the verdicts in this case of the au pair and the dead baby were not as chancy as the Massachusetts lottery. But on Monday 279 became Louise Woodward's lucky number.

279 days

In a reversal that turned a jury's murder conviction into a judge's manslaughter conviction, the British au pair's sentence was reduced from life to time served. To 279 days.

To put it quite simply, Louise Woodward walked. She won that first prize called freedom.

The judge reminded the public that this young woman will still go through life carrying the stigma of a felony. But he did not hear the cheers and the champagne corks popping in her hometown.

After all the appeals run out, the 19-year-old will go home to a heroine's welcome. The Eappens go home to an empty crib.

I do not dispute the judge's decision to reduce the crime to manslaughter. The defense team and the defendant, basking in their own hubris, made a bad bet. They put their money on the jury, gambled on all or nothing -- life or liberty, murder or release. But a judge is not just a croupier.

Mr. Zobel was ''morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice.'' He believed ''that the circumstances in which Defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice [in the legal] sense.''

Indeed, the ''sad scenario'' that Mr. Zobel described fits my own sense of what happened on that February day. I never thought she set out to murder this baby. I assumed rather that she ''lost it,'' was more than ''a little rough with him,'' rough enough to cause his death. In short, manslaughter -- or babyslaughter if you prefer.

But the sentence? Time served? 279 days? This reversal feels much more like whiplash than like justice.

Remember that the jury, stuck with the hard and narrow choice between setting Louise free and jailing her for life, chose jail because they could not conscionably let her go. But the judge had no such constraints. With a much wider latitude of days and options, he found her guilty and nevertheless handed her the keys.

One week a life sentence, the next week a walk. If these ''cases of the century'' that trip over each other make justice seem bewildering and arbitrary, no wonder.

Judge Zobel, an honorable man, no reed in the wind of public opinion, said that he was bringing this case to ''its compassionate conclusion.'' Compassion for whom? By whom?

He ruled that Woodward was responsible. She is still a killer, who acted in anger as well as frustration. Indeed to uphold her guilt was to say implicitly that this young caregiver perjured herself in court. And never showed remorse.

In the moral assessment of a guilty party, is there no attention to remorse, to just plain sorrow at a dead child?

At no time did Louise Woodward show compassion, sympathy, dismay, for anyone but herself. At the first sentencing, she cried out, ''I'm only 19.'' Before the second sentencing, she said only, ''I am innocent.'' This is a guilty verdict instantly translated into English -- or do we say British -- as innocent.

When the air is cleared of hysteria and appeals, and she returns home, will her Elton fans eagerly put their young in Louise's charge?

I am not a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of crime-watcher. I have seen this case nibbled by a million analysts. It has become a symbol for everything. For mommy wars and class wars, for anxiety about children and caregivers, for concern about televised courtrooms and media hype. We have been fascinated by everything -- including the fascination.

Every once in a while someone would say, ''What about Matthew?'' There would be a momentary hush and then the beat would go on.

Today however, we know ''what about Matthew.'' He was born on May 8, 1996. He died on Feb. 9, 1997, at the hands of Louise Woodward.

In the numbers game, he lived 262 days. She served 279. This is what the sentence says to his parents: tough luck.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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