The nanny trial

The ruling that freed Louise Woodward was a necessary "safety valve," says legal expert Wendy Kaminer.

Published November 12, 1997 2:13PM (EST)

The Boston nanny trial ended dramatically yesterday when Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel reduced the controversial second-degree murder conviction handed down by the jury to involuntary manslaughter. In her ruling, which was released on the Internet, Zobel said British au pair Louise Woodward had not acted with malice in the killing of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. Seeking a "compassionate conclusion" to the case, Zobel said Woodward had spent enough time in prison and set her free immediately.

Salon talked to Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, public policy fellow at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "It's All the Rage" and "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional," about Judge Zobel's decision.

What did you think of the jury's original verdict?

I was stunned by the verdict. I thought it was an unjust verdict. So I was
very pleased with the judge's decision and I would have been even more
pleased if he had given them a new trial. I think it was a very
well-considered decision by the judge.

How often does a judge disregard a jury's verdict?

It happens rarely that a judge will reduce a jury's verdict like this, but sometimes it is necessary -- that is why the judge is given the power to do it under Massachusetts law.

Why is it so rare?

They exercise it rarely because a jury's decision is supposed to be respected. And it was respected here. The judge made it very clear that this was not a slap in the face of the jury.

But it seems like it was a slap in the face. The judge didn't sentence Louise Woodward to any time in prison.

I think this is an indication that this judge believes that she did not act with any malicious intent. If you read the opinion, it tells you a lot.

What did the opinion say?

First, the judge talked about the powers he has under Massachusetts law. I'm quoting from the statute that he quoted from: "If a verdict of guilty is returned the judge may on motion order the entry of a finding of guilty of any offense included in the offense charged as part of the indictment." The judge treated manslaughter as an included offense. The law gives him the right -- the power -- to do this, and it is a very important safety valve because sometimes juries make ill-considered decisions. The jury is supposed to act as a check on prosecutors and judges and the judge is given a little bit of power so that he can act as a check on the jury.

How did the judge justify Louise Woodward's actions?

The judge said: "Viewing the evidence broadly as I'm permitted to do, I believe the circumstances the defendant acted on were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger -- but not malice in the legal sense."
Louise Woodward said she was innocent -- and in a way the judge is accepting her claim. He seems to believe that Matthew Eappen may well have had a prior injury so that however roughly Louise Woodward treated this child, it didn't have to be all that rough. The judge seems to have bought a lot of the defense's theories about the case.

Since the beginning, this has been a highly unusual case.

Remember, the manslaughter charge was not submitted to the jury. There is a lot of reason to believe if the manslaughter charge was submitted to the jury, the jury would have convicted her of manslaughter and not murder. So, in a way, the jury might well feel vindicated by the judge's decision.

Did the judge's decision today surprise the legal community, in Boston and elsewhere?

I think what surprised the legal community was the jury's verdict. I think the judge's reduction of the charge to manslaughter was expected.

Is it significant that the judge gave his decision over the Internet?

I think it's a good idea that responds to the enormous interest in the case. I think it's great that court opinions can be made accessible to everybody. And this way they don't have to be filtered through experts and commentators, so why not? I think this is a testament to the potential of the Internet to inform people and to get them involved in very direct ways and to give them very direct information.

And by posting an opinion on the Internet the judge could avoid an O.J.-esque media circus.

Using the Internet this way -- to disseminate an opinion -- does not distort the process the way putting television cameras in the court does. Posting the decision is a way of getting out information -- it happens after the trial is over and it does not affect the decision-making. It doesn't affect the way parties to the case behave.

It seems like everyone in America had an opinion on this case.

People watched this trial and formed an opinion of Louise Woodward's innocence. And then she was convicted of murder and people didn't believe she was guilty of murder, and some protests started because there was genuine concern about justice being done in the case. Then at some point, these movements gather momentum -- especially when the television cameras are pointed at the people standing outside of the courthouse holding candlelight vigils. Then the reporters go out there and they seem to quote the stupidest and most emotionally unbalanced people. I heard a report on NPR about how Deborah Eappen has been vilified in this case and the reporter talked to one guy standing on line who was carrying a sign that said, "One less child, one more Volvo." And then the reporter talked to someone who said she was sure the mother had killed the baby and was framing the au pair. Now these are stupid, vicious statements by individuals who are completely unknown to us, who as far as I can tell are just crazy, nasty people standing in a line somewhere. Why are these voices being broadcast? It's not like we have any reason to believe that theses people have an opinion that is representative of the public in general.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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