A docudrama for the telly

November 13, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The so-called nanny case, just concluded in Cambridge, Mass., might have been mistaken for a bad movie, which is probably just what it'll be before defendant Louise Woodward gets home to her waiting champagne party in England.

She's been instructed to hang around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until various legal maneuvers intended to clap her back in jail are resolved. These are mostly for show and unlikely to alter verdict or sentence, but they could take a year. That's plenty of time for the whole dismal thing to be reprised as a docudrama for insomniac network viewers, with refugee actors from ''90210'' cast in the principal roles.

Legal eagles

If big dollars are ever made from this inevitable venture into commercial art, most of them will probably go to the pear-shaped au pair's inept lawyers, who almost got her sent away for 15 years. But perhaps a little something will be left over for Ms. Woodward, whose American experience was more than she bargained for, and for her Mum and Dad, who loyally stood by her during her ordeal.

The case had all the ingredients television loves. There was a Big Issue, namely child care. There were class and cultural frictions. There was enough violence to flavor the story, but not so much as to endanger its intellectual pretensions. And there were plenty of characters who could be presented in two-dimensional cartoon form.

The latter included the parents of the 8-month-old child whose death Woodward was found to have caused. They are both professional people, who even in their bereavement gave articulate answers to interviewers. This aroused suspicion and hostility on the part of the Oprahfied, who have been taught to equate sincerity with tearful incoherence. If the parents were too snooty to bawl on camera, maybe they were in some way culpable, too.

Then there were the prosecutors, who instinctively understood the visceral connection between allegations of child abuse and political opportunity, and moved to capitalize on it. They knew in their bones that while the Massachusetts public fancies itself to be especially compassionate, it has the soul of a lynch mob.

The defense lawyers of course didn't recognize any of that, or they wouldn't have rolled the dice as they did, declining to allow the jury to consider a manslaughter verdict and making it choose between acquittal and second-degree murder. Quite naturally, there being a dead baby to consider, it selected the latter.

Finally, there was the defendant, pallid and suety from 279 days in the commonwealth's care. She denied abusing the child she had been asked to care for, and had no idea why he had apparently been violently shaken and perhaps even smashed against a wall. When she was initially sentenced to 15 years, she wailed plaintively.

A furor

The verdict and the 15-year sentence touched off quite a furor on both sides of the Atlantic. In Cambridge, marchers held up ''FREE LOUISE'' banners, and in England an endless procession of gray-haired old dears explained to the British Broadcasting Corp. cameras that American justice was barbaric.

But naturally, as befitted a docudrama in the making, it was all made to come out right in the end. The judge, not unreasonably, reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter, and reduced the sentence to time already served. Louise did indeed go free, ** although she was instructed not to leave Massachusetts yet, and the demonstrators outside the courthouse rushed off to find new examples of social injustice.

In picturesque Elton, England, the Woodward family's home, the spectacle was far more dramatic. Drunken villagers popped champagne corks as though they were the Florida Marlins. Toasts were offered to the judge, and to Louise, and to American justice, miraculously recovered from its barbarism. No doubt by the time the evening was over President Clinton and Princess Diana, but perhaps not Margaret Thatcher, had been toasted too.

Amid all the celebrating, only those with long memories will still recall that when it began, and before it was overwhelmed by bathos, this case was about the starkest of tragedies -- the violent death of a defenseless child. As so often happens, though, victim status was mysteriously transferred from one who suffered from a crime to one who perpetrated it. Eight-month-old Matthew Eappen, deceased, was forgotten.

Woodward, it ought to be noted, was not in the United States as a nanny -- meaning a person professionally experienced in child care. The judge cited her ''confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and . . . anger,'' which are not the ideally nannyish qualities. Au pairs, though they may indeed be reliable people who are very good with children, are no more nannies than teen-age hospital volunteers are registered nurses.

The au pair program, overseen by the United States Information Agency, was intended to be a cultural exchange in which young women from Western Europe came here for a year to work and learn. But soon, thanks to immigration laws which make the legal hiring of foreign nannies virtually impossible, it became Amateur Baby-sitters International. Sometimes the consequences have been tragic.

But for Louise Woodward, the future doesn't look so bad. In Elton the bubbly's on ice, and one day soon she'll be able to see her story dramatized on the telly. What more could anybody want?

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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