A Massachusetts judge reduces the second-degree murder conviction of British au pair Louise Woodward to involuntary manslaughter in the 1996 death of 8-and-a-half-month-old Matthew Eappen. Woodward, who had spent 279 days in jail, was sentenced to time served. The case generated enormous publicity on both sides of the Atlantic and sparked a debate in the United States over whether working women should stay home to care for their children if they can afford to do so.
In 1996, Louise Woodward of Elton, England, was hired by Sunil and Deborah Eappen of Newton, Massachusetts, to care for their two young sons. On February 4, 1997, Woodward, then 18, claimed she found Matthew unresponsive, tried to revive him and called 911. The boy died five days later of head injuries. Police alleged Woodward admitted she had been a little rough with Matthew and arrested her.
During the trial that followed, prosecutors claimed Woodward shook Matthew and slammed him on a hard surface because she was upset with him for crying and angry at his parents for trying to impose a curfew on her. Defense attorneys put medical experts on the stand who testified the baby’s death could have resulted from an undetected head injury that occurred several weeks before. On October 30, 1997, after deliberating for 27 hours, a jury found Woodward guilty of second-degree murder and she was sentenced to life in prison. Many people who had followed the trial believed the murder conviction was too severe and that Woodward had acted out of inexperience, not with the intent to kill. The case also triggered a backlash in the media against working mothers and Matthew’s parents, both doctors, were criticized for leaving their children in the care of a teenager.
On November 11, less than two weeks after the conviction, Judge Hiller B. Zobel overrode the jury’s decision and reduced the murder conviction to involuntary manslaughter because he believed Woodward had injured Eappen in a state of “confusion, fright and bad judgment, rather than rage or malice.”
In the aftermath of the case, Woodward returned to England where she earned a law degree and became a salsa dancing teacher.