Doctors: Au pair baby was strangled, not shaken, to death
March 8, 1999
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Two California medical experts held a news conference Monday to challenge the evidence that led to the manslaughter conviction of British au pair Louise Woodward in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.
The doctors from Los Angeles Children's Hospital said their review of medical records found that Matthew died not from violent shaking, but from strangulation -- after months of abuse.
"Our position is that this child was murdered, this was not an accidental death, that he sustained multiple injuries over time," said Dr. Marvin Nelson, chief of radiology at the hospital.
Nelson and Dr. Floyd Gilles, chief of neuropathology, made their determination after studying the autopsy reports and radiological reports from Children's Hospital in Boston, where Matthew was taken in February 1997.
Gilles said relevant evidence, such as the marks on the left side of the baby's neck, was not presented to the jury.
"There are two kinds of strangulation -- one is to encircle the neck with your hand, which usually breaks the larynx and compresses the trachea -- that's asphyxiation and that child dies rather rapidly," Gilles said.
But Matthew suffered a different type of injury, the doctor said.
"The other kind of strangulation is when you take hold of the child's neck and the two thumbs come down on either side of the windpipe on the carotid arteries, and that kind of strangulation can evolve over a period of time," Gilles said.
Prosecutors at Woodward's highly publicized Boston trial told the jury she caused blunt trauma to the baby's head within the six hours before he arrived at the hospital, when only she had been with him.
But Gilles and Nelson said Monday the fractured right side of the baby's skull was only part of a pattern of other injuries, including a fractured wrist and ribs and blows to the stomach.
But while the new evidence may change the cause of the baby's death, the doctors said it "in no way" exonerated Woodward.
"The window of opportunity for that fatal injury to have occurred extended outside the realm of just being solely in the care of Louise Woodward -- although it doesn't exclude her by any means," Nelson said.
Woodward attorney Andrew Good said Monday the defense had always asserted a pattern of old injuries and they suspected there may have been others.
"We were excluded from the autopsy," Good said. "We never got an opportunity, the same opportunity, to examine the body that the state got. We might well have turned up this and more."
In November 1997, two weeks after a jury convicted Woodward of the second-degree murder of Matthew, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel reduced that to manslaughter and sentenced Woodward to the 279 days she had already served since her arrest.
Woodward has since moved back to England.
A prosecutor in the case was not impressed by the new theories advanced by Gilles and Nelson, calling them "academic ivory tower speculation."
"Where Dr. Gilles alleges to say 'eureka,' what he did not account for -- because he could not -- was the skull fracture suffered by Matty Eappen, the extensive brain damage and the retinal bleeding," said Martha Coakley, co-prosecutor in Woodward's trial.
Gilles has said that the baby could have been shaken at the same time he was being strangled -- but the strangulation was the cause of his death.
By Massachusetts law, based on a formal presentation of the new evidence, a judge could now order a new investigation into the case.
Correspondent Bill Delaney contributed to this report.
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