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Au pair guilty in baby-shaking death

Au Pair October 30, 1997
Web posted at: 9:40 p.m. EST (0240 GMT)

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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) -- British au pair Louise Woodward was convicted of second-degree murder Thursday in the death of an 8-month-old infant in her care.

Woodward faces a prison term with the chance for parole after 15 years.

Prosecutors maintained that Woodward, 19, violently shook Matthew Eappen and then slammed the baby's head against a hard surface at his family's Newton, Massachusetts, home on February 4, causing the massive brain damage that led to his death five days later at a Boston hospital.

She was accused of acting in frustration over the child's fussing and the demands of her job.

Manslaughter not an option for jury

At Woodward's request, jurors were allowed to consider only first-degree or second-degree murder conviction and not a lesser charge of manslaughter, defined as a reckless action that shows disregard for human life.

To convict Woodward of first-degree murder, jurors were required to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed with extreme cruelty.

To convict Woodward of second-degree murder, the jury found that she intentionally killed the baby with malice, but without atrocity or premeditation.

Woodward proclaims her innocence

Matthew

Woodward spent two days on the witness stand denying charges that she ever shook or hit Matthew.

The British teen-ager -- the only one to know what happened before the boy was rushed to the hospital -- described her panic when the infant woke from a nap, gasping for breath with his eyes half-closed.

Woodward said she shook him gently to try to revive him. And she testified that Matthew may have hit his head the day before, when he fell near the steps of his playroom.

She calmly defended herself as Middlesex County District Attorney Gerard Leone Jr. pounded away about her late hours and other behavior that prompted the boy's parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, to give her an ultimatum to shape up.

Woodward said Sunil Eappen returned one day to find Matthew and his 2 1/2-year-old brother unattended while she did the laundry. "He was a bit unhappy, yeah," the teen recalled.

Leone's cross-examination also revealed a young woman who chatted on the phone, went out with her friends and lied about her age to get into bars.

Before leaving the witness stand, Woodward denied that she told police the day the boy was hospitalized that she had dropped Matthew on a bed or on the bathroom floor.

"No, I said I popped him on the bed," Woodward told the prosecutor. "That's just an English word." She said "popped" and "laid" meant the same to her.

A police officer testified that Woodward said she was rough with the child and dropped him twice that day. She said the officers brought up the term "rough," not her.

Woodward also testified that she enjoyed her job, describing reading and singing to Matthew and his brother. She admitted the job's demands often frustrated her, but said she did nothing to hurt the child.

Medical experts have conflicting opinions

Both the defense and prosecution tried to bolster their cases by calling several medical experts as witnesses. Defense witnesses said the baby's injuries were as much as three weeks old and were caused by something other than shaking and slamming.

Their conclusions conflicted with those of prosecution witnesses, including Eli Newberger, a child-abuse expert who examined Matthew at the hospital and concluded he had suffered 60 seconds of shaking that caused his brain to "smash back and forth within his skull."

The final injury, Newberger told police, was a "severe traumatic impact against a hard surface."

Parents criticized

The trial prompted criticism of the Eappens, both of whom are doctors. Callers to Boston radio talk shows accused them of putting their careers ahead of their children by hiring inexpensive child care.

Woodward, from Elton, England, a suburb of Liverpool, cared for the children and did household chores for $115 a week. A nanny, a full-time professional, would earn considerably more.

The case also has captured public attention in Britain, where it has been broadcast on television. Many young British women, as well as women from other European countries, come to the United States to work as au pairs.

An au pair is an employee who exchanges services such as caring for children in return for room and board. The French term means "as an equal."

 
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