The Railroad of Louise Woodward

Revolutionary Worker #932, November 16, 1997

On November 1, 1997, an outrageous verdict was reached in the murder trial of 19-year-old Louise Woodward. Louise was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years.

This case was vindictive from the beginning--starting from the state's decision to indict this young woman for murder--after an 8-month-old baby, Matthew Eappen, went into a coma while in her care and then died five days later. The prosecution speculated that Louise had slammed Matthew's head into a hard object--and said that this amounted to deliberate murder. The parents of Matthew were put on the stand to call Louise "child abuser," "monster" and "murderer," and to suggest that only Louise's punishment could ease their suffering and loss.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the tables were then turned, and the mother of Matthew Eappen was put "on trial." The defense team suggested Matthew's death should be blamed on Deborah Eappen--because she had gone back to her job as an ophthalmologist three days a week, leaving the baby in the care of Louise, an au pair nanny from Britain. Predictably, there was no suggestion that the father, Sunil Eappen, had been neglectful by continuing his career. At the same time, the mass media ran ongoing commentary that fanned all kinds of fears about babysitters and daycare.

Many women are outraged at the open promotion of the idea that working women are (somehow) betraying and endangering their children by leaving the home and returning to work. And many have pointed out that these defense arguments and media speculations amount to an attack on the right of all women to work and be treated as equals within marriage.

The greatest outrage came as the trial ended and the verdict arrived. Louise Woodward was found guilty of second degree murder--meaning that she was found to have intended to kill. Mandatory sentencing requires that she receive a punishment of life in prison--and that she serve at least 15 years before being considered for parole.

The case was based on questionable circumstantial evidence. There was no evidence that Louise had intended to kill this baby or even that she caused his death. An expert defense witness at the trial testified that x-rays showed that Matthew had skull fractures that were several weeks old, and argued that relatively minor events could have triggered fatal internal bleeding in his head.

When Louise first found Matthew in a coma on February 4, she reportedly told 911 that she may have been "a little rough" with him. But she has steadfastly denied hurting him and testified at the trial, "I'd never hurt Mattie and I never did hurt Mattie and I don't know what happened to him."

Even jurors reported after the verdict that they believed that there was no convincing evidence of intention to kill. And yet, the prosecution railroad successfully pressed on for a conviction.

What justifies locking this young woman away for at least 15 years? Can anyone honestly believe that she represents a threat to society?

No, the motive driving this verdict and sentencing is the cold, mean-spirited philosophy of punishment and vengeance that has gripped the U.S. legal system. Unjust mandatory sentences like this are used constantly to railroad hundreds of thousands of youth into prison for long stretches--for relatively minor acts like drug possession.

The blatant injustice of this case has led to protests in Massachusetts where the trial was held and in Britain where Woodward's family lives. There have been demands that the judge set aside this verdict and free Louise. As we go to press, there has not yet been a final decision.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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