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This Day in History - The Nanny Murder Trial

On February 4th, 8 month old Matthew Eappen was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a fractured skull and subdural hematoma. He fell into a coma, and died on February 9th.
The doctor who examined Matthew observed an unexplained fractured wrist, possibly from a month or so earlier.

On top of the head injuries, the baby had hemorrhaging in the eyes, both signs of shaken-baby syndrome.

Louise Woodward, the British Au Pair who had been caring for him at the time, and brought him in, was questioned by the police.

She stated that she had popped the baby onto the bed. Her lawyer clarified that popped meant put, or placed in Britain, not the American definition, suggesting violence. The police claimed she had said she dropped him onto the bed.. She also admitted to dropping him on the floor at one point and was possibly " a little rough" during that time.

She was charged with second-degree murder.

At the trial, which began on June 10th, 1997, the prosecution put on eight doctors involved in his care at the hospital, and a child abuse expert who claimed that Matthew had died from violent shaking, during which his head hit against a hard surface.

Defense attorneys countered with the lack of neck injuries that should have existed, had he been shaken. They also brought their expert, who testified that the injuries could have occurred up to 3 weeks prior to the hospital stay. This testimony gave weight to the defense's theory that the parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, could have had something to do with the injuries. He testified that the baby had old wrist injuries, that could were possibly caused before Woodward was hired.

Woodward herself testified that she had never noticed any injuries to Matthew, until the night she brought him to the hospital

The police who had originally taken her statement testified to the rough handling she had admitted to, as well as her statement that she had dropped him.

Though juries are given the option of murder, manslaughter or not guilty, defense attorney Barry Scheck insisted that manslaughter not be given as an option. He demanded she be convicted on the charge against her, or sent home.

After 26 hours, on October 30th, 1997, the jury found her guilty. At the age of 18, she faced 15 years to life in prison.

In November, the judge who had presided over the trial, Hiller Zobel, reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter.

He stated, "the circumstances in which the defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense supporting a conviction for second-degree murder".

Her sentence was reduced to 279 days of time served, and she was released, promptly heading home to Britain.

Once home, Louise Woodward earned her law degree, but dropped out of her training to teach ballroom and Latin dance.

In 2007, the prosecutors child abuse expert, Dr. Patrick Barnes, changed his opinion. He stated that the injuries to baby Matthew could have been older.

In a paper he wrote, "The science we have today could, in fact, have exonerated Louise. There is certainly, in retrospect, reasonable doubt."

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