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S P E C I A L The Au Pair Trial

British au pair convicted of murder

Woodward October 31, 1997
Web posted at: 4:13 a.m. EST (0913 GMT)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) -- British au pair Louise Woodward was found guilty on Thursday of second-degree murder for the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, who had been left in her care.

"I didn't do anything. I didn't do anything," Woodward sobbed hysterically after the verdict was read. Her attorneys held her up as she began to collapse.

Turning toward the jury box after jurors had left, Woodward cried, "Why did they do that to me?"

The verdict carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison, with eligibility for parole after 15 years. The jury returned the verdict at 9:40 p.m. (0240 GMT Friday) after three days of deliberation.

vxtreme The jury's verdict is read. Courtesy Court TV

Defense attorney Andrew Good said outside the courthouse that he was "at a loss to understand how anyone in their right mind could come to this verdict."

Prosecutors challenged the assertion that the verdict was a surprise.

"In the medical-legal community, (among) those people who work with abused kids, this case wasn't really a close call before it got into the courtroom," prosecutor Martha Coakley said.

Little emotion evident among jurors

The jurors were composed and unemotional as they filed into the courtroom. Woodward's parents, Susan and Gary, showed little reaction as the verdict was announced. Sunil and Deborah Eappen, Matthew's parents, were not in the courtroom.

Hometown friends watch the reading of the jury's verdict in Elton, England
video icon 1.1M/28 sec. QuickTime movie

The jurors had the option of finding Woodward guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence without possibility of parole, or second-degree murder. To convict Woodward of second-degree murder, the jury had to find that she killed the baby with malice, but without premeditation.

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

Woodward had been hired by the Eappens as a live-in caretaker for their children through an au pair agency. Au pairs, usually young women, offer household help for little or no pay in exchange for room and board and the chance to live abroad.

Sentencing scheduled for Friday

Judge Hiller Zobel set sentencing for 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) Friday. Because second-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence in Massachusetts, the judge's options are limited; he can hand down that sentence, or set aside the jury's verdict, which is very rarely done.

"This is not a case where the law has been misapplied," former U.S. Attorney Henry Hudson said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "This is a case where 12 people have made factual decisions, and it's rare for a trial judge or an appellate court to set aside a verdict based on a factual issue of this type."

At Woodward's request, the jury could not consider a verdict of guilty of manslaughter, defined as a reckless action that shows disregard for human life.

Defense attorney Good later conceded that opting not to let the jury consider a manslaughter verdict was a gamble that didn't pay off. He said it was a decision that Woodward made herself, in consultation with her attorneys.

"I still think that it was the right decision," Good said.

Woodward proclaimed her innocence

Matthew Eappen

The prosecution said that Woodward became frustrated with the children's demands, and that she was more interested in American nightlife than in her job. She and the Eappens had clashed over the children's care and her refusal to accept an 11 p.m. curfew as previous au pairs had, prosecutors said.

In two days on the stand, Woodward denied ever shaking or hitting Matthew.

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

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

She remained composed on the stand as Middlesex County District Attorney Gerard Leone, Jr. pounded away in cross-examination, asking about the behavior that led the Eappens to give her an ultimatum to shape up.

Woodward admitted Sunil Eappen once returned to find the children unattended while she was doing laundry. "He was pretty unhappy, yeah," she said.

The teen also denied telling police she had dropped Matthew on the bed the day he was hospitalized. "No, I said I popped him on the bed," Woodward said. "It's just an English word." She said "popped" meant the same as "laid" to her.

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."

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.

Correspondents Brian Jenkins and Hilary Bowker contributed to this report.

 
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