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British au pair guilty of 2nd-degree murder


'Why did they do that to me?' she sobs

October 30, 1997
Web posted at: 11:28 p.m. EST (0428 GMT)

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

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.

"I didn't do anything, I didn't do anything," Woodward, 19, sobbed hysterically after the verdict was read. She had to be held up by her attorneys as she began to break down.

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

Stunned defense attorney Andrew Good said later that he was "at a loss to understand how anyone in their right mind could come to this verdict."

"I think that the only 12 people who think that Louise Woodward is guilty are the 12 people on the jury," Good said.

Prosecutors challenged the assertion that the verdict was a surprise. Prosecutor Martha Coakley said that among "those people who work with abused kids, this case wasn't really a close call before it got into the courtroom."

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

"In presenting a complex medical case in the courtroom, with the restrictions of question-and-answer and with a very experienced and well-mounted defense, you can create a reasonable doubt. We respect that in this case that did not happen," she said.

"This is a bittersweet moment," prosecutor Thomas Reilly said. "This was the correct verdict."

Jurors composed as they rendered verdict

Jurors were composed and unemotional as they filed into the courtroom. Woodward's parents showed little emotion as their daughter's guilty verdict was announced. The parents of the boy, Matthew Eappen, 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

Prosecutors maintained that Woodward, 19, violently shook Matthew 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.

Woodward had been hired by Matthew's parents as a live-in caretaker for the child. Prosecutors alleged she killed the baby in frustration over the child's fussing and the demands of her job.

The jury had the option of finding Woodward guilty of first- or second-degree murder or acquitting her. The more serious charge carried a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Shock, anger in Britain

elton verdict

In Britain, where the Woodward case has drawn strong public attention, the decision was greeted with shock and anger.

"It's the wrong verdict," said Hazel Mayamba-Kasongo, a supporter in Woodward's home village of Elton, England. "We know Louise. We know Louise is incapable of an act of cruelty like that."

"This young girl has not done anything. She would never hurt any child," said Val Ross, who has known Woodward since she was Woodward's pre-school teacher.

At Woodward's request, jurors were allowed to consider only a 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.

Good conceded later 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.

To reach a guilty verdict of first-degree murder, jurors would have been required to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed with extreme cruelty.

To convict Woodward of second-degree murder, the jury had to find that she intentionally killed the baby with malice, but without premeditation.

Woodward proclaims her innocence

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

Matthew Eappen

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."

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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