The au pair trial has been the focus of much attention, and today it gained an even larger audience. Louise Woodward was set free after serving 279 days in jail, the NewsHour's regional commentators discuss the verdict.
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon Massachusetts Judge Hiller Zobel released 19-year-old Louise Woodward by sentencing her to 279 days, the time she's already served since being charged in the death of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen.
JUDGE HILLER ZOBEL, Massachusetts Superior Court: Even with the lowered verdict, the defendants is convicted of a felony. Selecting the sentence here I do not denigrate Matthew Eappen's death, nor his family's grief. It is, in my judgment, time to bring the judicial part of this extraordinary matter to a compassionate conclusion.
KWAME HOLMAN: Earlier today the judge ended six days of suspense by announcing his decision to reduce a jury's second degree murder conviction of the British au pair to involuntary manslaughter. In his decision, the judge concluded Woodward's admitted shaking of the infant resulted from fright and bad judgment, rather than rage or malice. Had the jury's verdict stood the teen-age live-in babysitter would have faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison, with parole possible after 15 years.
BAILIFF: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony--in the case now on trial shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
LOUISE WOODWARD: I do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Woodward was accused of violently shaking the infant Matthew Eappen and slamming his head against a hard surface, fracturing his skull. Matthew and his three-year-old brother had been in her care for about three months prior to Matthew's death from his injuries last February. Woodward's defense team, which included prominent lawyer Barry Scheck, admitted it was a mistake to refuse an early offer from prosecutors to reduce the charge against Woodward. The lawyers opted, instead, to risk a first or second degree murder conviction in hope of winning an outright acquittal of Woodward.
JUDGE ZOBEL: Is the defendant guilty or not guilty?
KWAME HOLMAN: The defense's appeal of the jury verdict opened the way under Massachusetts law for the judge's review. He also could have ordered a new trial in the case. In Louise Woodward's home town of Elton, England, friends and family followed the entire trial and original verdict on television. From the moment the jury's decision was read two weeks ago Woodward's many supporters on both sides of the Atlantic donned yellow ribbons and began a pubic campaign urging the judge to change it. After today's sentencing, state prosecutors said they would appeal Judge Zobel's decision to override the jury. Louise Woodward agreed to surrender her passport and stay in Massachusetts until that appeal is concluded. Meanwhile, her lawyers say she will appeal the involuntary manslaughter conviction.
JIM LEHRER: And now from San Francisco Elizabeth Farnsworth takes it from there out into the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And to our regional commentators, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; and Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune. Robert Kittle, why do you think this has generated--this trial has generated so much interest around the country?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, I think mainly because it focuses on the problem that is shared by literally millions and millions of American families, and that is the need for child care. Today, 2/3 of the mothers of children under the age of six in the United States work outside the home. And I think this trial showed the worst nightmare of millions of parents; that the person they've left their children with has done something violent. But also I think the other aspect of this is the trial and its original conviction was seen by many, and rightly so, as a miscarriage, as justice gone awry. And I think today the judge has helped to right that situation, and that has underscored the importance of judicial discretion because every crime is different, every defendant is different, and a judge needs to have the ability, as he did in this case, to set aside, you know, a sort of black and white verdict that said either murder or acquittal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia Tucker, staying for a minute with the question of why it generated so much attention even before today, is it--do you think that Bob's right, it's because child care is such an important issue for so many people?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, if Bob is right about that, Elizabeth, then we have used this trial as a stand-in for those issues when this case really doesn't apply. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Americans do not have live-in help. Au pairs represent a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the child care givers in this country. And so this case, in fact, does not have very much to do with what most American parents are faced with, working parents are faced with, when they look for child care. Now, I do think that we use this case as a stand-in, as a surrogate, if you will, for those--that issue and many others. I think one of the things we also discuss around this trial was our continuing anxieties about women in the workplace. There were some critics who thought that the mother, Deborah Eappen, shouldn't have been working. And so clearly there were things about this trial that allowed us to discuss other issues, which are perhaps more important.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, do you agree with that; the trial's really about--or the interest is really in these other issues?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, I think this trial is actually more about class than it was about the crime that was committed. I think that the coverage began with huge groups of professionals sitting around newsrooms and TV stations, who in the Eappens and Louise Woodward saw something that they could identify with. In this country we don't identify with, you know, the 16-year-old boyfriend of the 15-year-old mother, who batters the eight-month-old crack baby. We don't identify with the eight-month-old baby hurled out of a second floor tenement window. Where we had an eight-month-old baby with two tremendously attractive people, both doctors, and we looked around and at ABC, and at PBS, and the Boston Globe and the Washington Post and at law firms and accounting firms and banks. We looked at them, and we saw this could be us. We don't identify with the other casualties. I think that's one aspect of it. The other aspect of it I think that is rather interesting is that in Louise Woodward you had a woman--an au pair--that suddenly became identified with part of a cause about, you know, should women be in the workplace? But waitresses have been in the workplace struggling with child care for years before this happened. There are people working in the Saturn auto plants down in Tennessee tonight who struggle with the same things that the Eappens struggled with, where to get a good babysitter. This is not new. We have made it new. We have taken a woman convicted of a crime and turned her into a celebrity almost overnight. She's gone from being a pariah a few short months ago to the cover of People Magazine, which she'll probably be on very quickly. There's something wrong with the way we administer and look at justice in this country!
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, do you agree with that? Do you see the same class issues?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Well, I think there is some truth in what Mike says definitely, and I agree with Cynthia and with Bob Kittle also. I think we do have a strong identification with the Eappens. Most people don't have live-in help; that's absolutely true; but most people with children are trying to find child care of some sort, and they certainly do call in babysitters from time to time, many do, to go out to a movie or whatever, and this case is bringing home the fact that parents are going to have to be a great deal more thoughtful and careful. Teenagers are simply not appropriate babysitters unless you know the teenager very well and then only for two or three hours, I think. A full-time responsibility is just too much for someone so immature. Au pair agencies are going to have to think carefully about the people they engage. They're going to have to be older. They're going to have to be looking for an opportunity to live and work in another country, not just have a holiday. So it's bringing all sorts of these issues to the fore, and I think there's a strong identification with Louise Woodward also. You know, she has a very ordinary, recognizable look about her. She doesn't have the look of a sociopath like Timothy McVeigh. She could have been in anybody's home and had a fit of temper; though the judge seemed to think she didn't, it seems to me she did. So it could have happened to anybody. And that's why there's so much distress around this case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, identification with Louise Woodward, do you think that's right?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I don't know. I think on this one I'm a lot closer to Mike's observations and those of Cynthia as well. I think it's dangerous to use this case as a stand-in for some of these other cultural questions where we have a very legitimate, you know, discussion going on. I think the key thing in any criminal justice proceeding has to be justice within the parameters of that case and the evidence presented in that case. This outcome is shocking. It raises a question in my mind as to whether American justice can be sustained in the face of organized popular fury from abroad. It also raises a question about a possible new legal standard invented by a trial judge, not by an appeals court, namely that because the defense counsel has arguably blundered, the convicted must somehow go free. That would be a rewrite of Benjamin Cardozo's observations about the exclusionary rule. I'm real concerned about this outcome. And if you think about it, you put it in the sequence of events--the Rodney King trial, the reaction to that, the aftermath, and the revisiting of that case because of popular fury and reaction--then the anticipated possible fury and reaction to the O. J. Simpson case and then you come right up to this--we're having things deployed into criminal cases that have no business being in those cases.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, you did not find the outcome today shocking you said.
ROBERT KITTLE: No. I think this was the right outcome. I think the judge did the right thing here because any of us who are parents can understand the tensions that arise when you're taking care of an infant and a toddler. And in this case it was a very immature young woman who was saddled with that job. She obviously has reacted inappropriately and somewhat violently to the situation but I think the reality is that the crime that she committed was not premeditated murder. And involuntary manslaughter seems like the proper verdict to me. And I'm happy that under Massachusetts law the judge had the discretion to, in effect, save the defendant from a blundered defense. Indeed, the way the defense handled this the jury had no choice but to decide that she was innocent of any crime, or she was guilty of murder. That was a very rigid approach, and the judge, I think, has applied the right amount of flexibility here to produce the right outcome.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia, what do you think of the outcome?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I, in fact, thought the judge did a wise and just thing when he reduced the charge. I am much less comfortable, however, with the sentence. Even finding that it was involuntary manslaughter, he still could have given her additional time to serve, which I think would have been appropriate. In this country, I think, we're just beginning to take the issue of child abuse and the deaths of children at the hands of care-givers, including parents, seriously. And I think we have to send a message that this is a serious crime. I also think Mike is right about the class issues. You know, had this been a black boy accused of doing the exact same things to his girlfriend's baby, I doubt if we would have seen him sentenced to 279 days.
I don't think Louise Woodward's life should be ruined over this; I don't think she should have spent 15 years; but I do believe that she acted in a fit of rage. I think she was angry with the parents after they had said she was out partying too much, and she should have said at that point, "I don't want to do this anymore; that's not why I came to this country." Instead, I think, she took it out on the baby, resulting in the death of the child, and I think she needed to spend some time in prison for that crime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, thank you all very much for being with us.
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