The conflicting evidence, lost facts, fervent nationalism and tabloid-driven hysteria surrounding one of the most notorious trials of the 1990s.
In 1997, a young woman from Elton, Cheshire, became front-page news on both the red-tops and the no-tops, dominating news channels and discussed from pubs to university dining halls. Her name? Louise Woodward. A then19-year-old from a quiet northern village who had travelled to America for fun and life experience was swept up into one of the most polarising legal cases of the 1990s. And also one of the most mysterious – to this day, 25 years later, no one really seems to know the truth of what happened to cause Woodward’s arrest, imprisonment, and then an ongoing drama that fuelled bitterness and backlash across the Atlantic. All that is known is that Matthew Eappen, the baby of a young American couple, died in her care and his name got forgotten in the ongoing media process. Forgotten in the endless swirl of jeering protestors, screaming villagers, and tabloid press.
The Louise Woodward case is one that never ceases to attract attention. A recent three-part documentary broadcast on Channel 4 – The Killer Nanny; Did She Do It?, even the title awash with contradiction and uncertainty – focused its attention on the key players in both legal teams and journalists; there were no new interviews with the Woodwards or with the Eappens. Louise Woodward was the most curiously absent figure; decades-old images of her appear in the court footage and in later television interviews, at some points accompanied by an eerie voiceover from an interview she did in 2003. The documentary was unsettling to watch, as what began to emerge was a messy, complex picture of contrasting needs, overreaching arrogance, cultural misunderstandings, and a braying mob mentality that was far more disturbing than people gave credit to at the time.
The starting point for the case was when Woodward, an au pair for Deborah and Sunil Eappen, rang 911 on 4th February 1997, to request assistance for the couple’s baby son, Matthew (Matty), who had stopped breathing. Five days later, the Eappens made the agonising decision to end their son’s life support. An Ophthalmologist at the hospital had noted the baby had retinal haemorrhages, a sign of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Woodward was initially arrested on the 5th of February on a charge of assault and battery – the murder charge was brought when Matthew Eappen died. When this news came to the attention of the British media, many different strands were pulled upon, all of which appeared to obscure the real nature of the case and present Woodward as the wronged victim. It’s easy to see why. Woodward had been arrested in a foreign country, one which despite its shared language, has many differences to ours, which are not always understood or respected.
In presenting Woodward as a victim, someone had to be seen as the villain. An easy way of achieving this was to systematically demonise the parents. The hostility towards the Eappens was fuelled by an aggressive media, with John Carlin of The Independent writing that it was “determined to portray Louise as the victim of a flawed justice system, driven by the Eappens’ desire for vengeance for their baby’s death.” Deborah and Sunil Eappen were (and according to the internet, still are) practising medical doctors who met as medical students and married after a long courtship. Both devout Roman Catholics, the union of a white woman from Middle America and a first-generation Indian-American immediately aroused interest, as did the fact that Deborah Eappen was a working mother, who had left her children alone in the care of a 19-year-old from Britain. The fact that both had substantial debts from Medical school and alternated coming home early each day to relieve Louise of the children and so they could spend time with them was ignored. One thing that did emerge during the trial was the claim that Woodward appeared to be disinterested in the nuts and bolts of her job, and more interested in socialising in Boston. At the trial, Deborah Eappen spoke of how Louise would go out late, oversleep, and not be ready to look after the children when she had to go to work. Complaints were also made of her constant use of the family phone and computer. This does raise another question – if she was that bad, why not get her removed and replaced, perhaps with someone more experienced? This backbiting of complaint and counter-complaint served neither party well. Woodward came across as a resentful, irritated teenager who wanted the fun but not the work; the Eappens as entitled yuppies who were not prepared to spend money on a proper, qualified nanny that would have relieved them of their concerns that their children were not being properly cared for. However, they had already had two very successful au pairs, one Danish and other Swedish. Frankly, they can be forgiven for trusting that the agency sending them would be consistent in sending young women prepared for the job.
Viewers of the documentary were quick to take to Twitter after watching, denouncing Woodward as “cold” and “emotionless.” A similar observation was made by the Daily Mirror columnist Sue Carroll, who slammed Woodward and her parents in 1998 – when tabloid sympathy had inevitably turned to finger-wagging – as resembling “monstrous garden gnomes…devoid of any emotion.” Woodward also giggled at one point, which led one of the defence team to despair. She also admitted she may have been “a little rough” with the baby, which even as non-parent, was hard to hear. But it also revealed a distressing cultural clash, explained by Bronwen Maddox, then a writer for The Times. Woodward used the phrase “popped him on the towel” to the police, a simple English colloquialism meaning ‘placed’. But in Boston, as Maddox pointed out, ‘popped’ is a phrase with much more violent connotations – “I popped him in the face!” (i.e. I punched him.). It seems bizarre that her legal team did not pick this up. Or the fact that in trying to explain to the jury that Matthew Eappen had died of previous injuries, they seemed to ignore the fact that both parents were doctors, who would arguably have noticed if their son had been ill – though, of course, invisible pre-existing injuries might be harder to spot.
Woodward was arguably not helped by Barry Scheck, a flamboyant and determined defender, who insisted that she be tried for first or second-degree murder or acquitted. They chose to omit the charge of involuntary manslaughter, which would have led to a much lesser sentence if she had been found guilty. The decision to go with this was a high-risk gamble. When Woodward was found guilty of second-degree murder, an immediate campaign for her release began in the village of Elton and soon started to spread across the country. This was troubling, as the demand for her to be released kept hammering the view that she was completely innocent. But as then Sunday Mirror columnist Carole Malone countered, a baby had died in Louise’s care and in the eyes of many, that made her responsible, no matter what the actual cause of death.
What was particularly shocking about the aggression shown towards the parents was that it was in stark contrast to the sympathy and grief that was poured out to the parents of James Bulger a few years before. Empathy for two people who had lost their child was non-existent in this case, which in retrospect, was chilling. Things escalated when the judge overturned the jury’s decision (something perfectly legal under Massachusetts law) and instead found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter – accidental death, but nevertheless an accident caused by her actions. The scenes of people cheering in The Rigger pub in Elton – and, perhaps, their use of yellow ribbons, long the symbol of support for people being held hostage in the Middle East – were frankly distasteful. Zobel had not said she was innocent – she was still found guilty of a criminal act. There was nothing to celebrate here.
That criminal act seemed to be forgotten. Suddenly, Louise was photographed swimming in Boston, being interviewed on television by Martin Bashir. Accusations then began that she saw herself as a new Princess Diana. Her supporters claimed she had the right to tell her story. But I wonder if perhaps it would be better if she’d said nothing at all. She has complained about media intrusion in the past – yet news of her wedding and own children’s births always seem to end up in the press. Meanwhile, the fact Matthew Eappen would have been celebrating his 26th birthday this year appears largely forgotten. Just who was the real victim? Regardless of what you might think of her guilt and innocence, it really was not Louise Woodward.
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