"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
It was the 4th of February 1997. A Tuesday. Eighteen year old Louise Woodward called 911:
“Help – there’s ...a baby… he’s barely breathing. Help . . . he's making gurgling noises . . . Help, what should I do? . . . I think he puked. His face is going violet . . . Oh my God."
Louise made the 911 call from the home of her employers, Deborah and Sunil Eappen, in Newton, Boston, Massachusetts, United States. She worked as an au pair and was hired to look after their two children, two year old Brendan and eight month old Matthew. Louise began working there in November 1996. It was her second au pair job since she arrived in the United States from her home in Elton, Cheshire, England, United Kingdom.
A childcare agency recommended Louise to the couple and Deborah and Sunil interviewed a number of people before offering Louise the job. Sunil and Deborah needed someone to help take care of their two boys as they both worked. Sunil was an anaesthetist at a Boston hospital and Deborah worked part-time as an ophthalmologist at the time.
Deborah and Sunil Eappen with Brendan(left) and Matthew
That day, the 4th of February, Deborah and Sunil were both at work and Louise was home alone with Brendan and Matthew when she made the 911 call. The paramedics were notified that there was a baby in her care who wasn't breathing and they were there within minutes. They found Matthew lying unresponsive on the living room floor.
Matthew was taken to hospital and Deborah and Sunil were informed that their son had a brain injury. He had emergency brain surgery and was put on a life support machine but died of a brain haemorrhage five days later. Doctors informed police that they believed his injuries were consistent with violent shaking. They believed that somebody shook Matthew in a violent manner and that he hit his head off a hard surface.
Police spoke to Louise. She had been arrested the day after Matthew was taken to hospital on a battery charge but after his death, that was upgraded to a murder charge. When police questioned Louise, the questioning wasn't recorded but the police took down a note of what Louise said. According to the notes, Louise told police that she was upset that day, the 4th of February, because Matthew was cranky and that she tossed Matthew onto the bed. The notes went on to say that Louise admitted she had been rough with Matthew when she gave him a bath and may have dropped him on a towel on the bathroom floor. The notes recorded that she admitted she may have shaken the baby. Louise was charged with first degree murder. She pleaded not guilty.
At the start of the Trial, the Defense asked the Judge if he would restrict the Jury to only three verdicts: find Louise guilty of either first degree or second degree murder, or acquit her. The Prosecution objected to that request as they felt the Jury should have the option to consider whether or not Louise was guilty of manslaughter. The Judge granted the Defense their request. The Jury could not consider the option of manslaughter.
The Trial had to establish one crucial point. What happened to Matthew to cause injuries so severe, injuries that would normally only be seen in car crash cases or falls from a great height? To help explain this, both the Prosecution and the Defense had a number of medical witnesses they planned to call during the Trial. The Prosecution believed that Matthew was shaken and slammed onto a hard object and that was how he sustained such severe injuries but the Defense believed that Matthew died due to an old injury Matthew sustained. The Jury would have to decide.
It was the Prosecution case that the best evidence in the case was the bruised, broken and battered body of Matthew Eappen. It was their case that Louise was unhappy with her job as an au pair and the rules that surrounded that role. The Court heard that she had been with the family since November 1996 after leaving the previous family she worked for due to their rules. They had an 11pm curfew so she left that job and sought work with another family via a childcare agency. She was placed with the Eappen family. The Court heard that two months after she began working for them, they spoke to her about the fact that she stayed out late at night and they wrote out a number of things that they expected of her to ensure “the safety and well-being of our kids.” The Court heard that Sunil returned home early one day to find the two small boys left unattended in the house and Louise told him she was doing the laundry. That list was given to Louise at the end of January and just a few days later, Matthew was taken to hospital with a severe brain injury where he later died.
The Court heard that the day Louise called 911, the 4th of February, she was alone with Matthew and Brendan at the time. It was the Prosecution case that Louise, by her own admission, was a little rough with Matthew that day and they told the Jury that they believed she had shaken Matthew and slammed him down hard on a surface. It was their case that she killed him in a “frustrated, unhappy and resentful rage.” They told the Court that Louise was more of a party girl who loved going to the theatre to see Rent and preferred to be out with friends instead of at home working. They told the Jury that Louise moved to the United States for an adventure and to have fun. The Court heard she got up late most mornings and spent a lot of time on the phone. It was the Prosecution case that she didn't like the rules that the Eappen family had set down for her to follow.
The Court heard about the injuries that Matthew sustained. He had a two inch skull fracture on the back of his head and his brain had swelled through the crack in the back of his skull and his head, neck and spinal cord were wracked by haemorrhaging. He sustained subarachnoid and subdural bleeding, and bilateral retinal hemorrhages, which is bleeding in the back of the inner surface of both eyes, and the Court heard that those injuries were consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome, which is also known as Shaken Impact Syndrome, with an accompanying violent impact onto a hard surface. Shaken Baby Syndrome usually occurs when a baby is forcefully or violently shaken and due to that, the brain moves back and forth inside the skull which causes bruising, swelling and bleeding. It is most commonly associated with cases where someone who is looking after a baby may be frustrated by the baby, possibly due to crying, and violently shakes the baby in a rage.
A number of expert witnesses testified on behalf of the Prosecution. Dr Barnes testified that he believed that Matthew's injuries were the result of Shaken Baby Syndrome. The Court heard from a number of Doctors who testified that Matthew's injuries were caused by someone swinging and shaking his head and striking it against a blunt surface.
Dr Joseph Madsen, who performed emergency brain surgery on Matthew, said that the injuries he saw likely occurred only hours before Matthew's admission to hospital on the 4th of February:
"It most likely happened one to three hours before we saw him. But that is only an opinion."
Dr Robert Cleveland, a paediatric radiologist, testified that he could not say exactly how old the skull fracture was:
"It has not been there for a long time because the edges are still sharp. But how long I can't tell."
The Court heard about a child abuse expert named Eli Newberger who examined Matthew when he was in hospital and it was his belief that Matthew had suffered 60 seconds of shaking. The shaking caused his brain to smash back and forth within his skull. He also believed that some of Matthew's injuries were consistent with a:
"severe traumatic impact against a hard surface."
It was the Defense case that Matthew had suffered a head injury prior to the 4th of February, they believed it may have been some three weeks before, and that a minor incident on the 4th of February caused rebleeding on his brain and subsequently caused his death. It was their case that the initial injury went undetected and gentle shaking that may have taken place on the 4th of February reaggravated it. It was their case that if an old injury caused his death, it was impossible to say who caused it.
Louise testified at Trial about the events of the 4th of February. The Court heard that Matthew woke from a nap, gasping for breath.Louise told the Court that his eyes were half closed and she thought he swallowed his own vomit. She testified that she tried to revive Matthew when she saw he wasn't breathing. She denied that she violently shook him that day. In relation to the statement she gave to police, she testified that there had been a misunderstanding and that she said she had “popped” Matthew on to the bed and did not say she had tossed him. She explained that in England, popped doesn't mean to hit or throw, it means laid and she meant that she laid Matthew on the bed. She claimed she didn't tell police she dropped Matthew on a bed or on the bathroom floor.
Louise testified that she shook Matthew but she only shook him gently when trying to revive him. She told the Court that he may have hit his head the day before because he fell beside the stairs in his playroom. She denied hitting or harming him.
The Defense called Matthew's mother Deborah to testify and they attempted to cast her as a mother who was too busy to take care of her own children and one who hired inexperienced and inexpensive au pairs instead. She was asked if her life was busy, if the reason she didn't call home on the 4th of February was due to her being too busy and she was also asked if she found working and being a mother stressful.
The Defense asked the Jury to acquit Louise.
The Jury deliberated for twenty six hours and found Louise guilty of second degree murder. They believed that she violently shook him and threw him on the bathroom floor. They did not believe that his death was due to an old injury. A number of prominent physicians agreed with them. After the verdict was reached, seventy two prominent physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of child abuse victims responded to the claim made by the Defense that a minor incident on the 4th of February could have caused an old head injury to re bleed. They described that as inaccurate, contrary to vast clinical experience and unsupported by any published literature. They argued that a re bleed theory in infants is a courtroom diagnosis only and is certainly not a medical diagnosis.
Louise was sentenced to the mandatory requirement which was life in prison with the possibility of parole after fifteen years.
When she heard the verdict, Louise cried hysterically and said:
"I didn't do anything."
Just ten days later, in an inexplicable move, Judge Hiller Zobel overturned the Jury’s verdict and ruled that Louise was guilty of involuntary manslaughter and vacated the life sentence. He was in a position to do that due to a provision of Massachusetts law which allows a Judge to overrule a Jury. The Court heard that he felt Louise acted out of immaturity, some anger, but not malice:
"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. I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice."
He sentenced Louise to the time she had already served in prison while awaiting Trial, which was just 279 days. His decision meant that she could be released from prison immediately.
The Prosecution appealed and the Massachusetts' highest court upheld the lower Court decision, albeit by a slim margin. By a vote of 4-3, they upheld the decision to reduce the murder conviction to manslaughter and agreed to the 279 day sentence. Justice Margaret Marshall wrote in the majority opinion:
“We do not view the judgment against Woodward as a light matter. She stands guilty of causing an infant’s death.”
They were critical that Judge Zobel did not allow the Jury to consider the manslaughter verdict in the first instance. They also recommended that she should never be allowed to work with children again. Middlesex County District Attorney Tom Reilly conceded that the matter was closed but made it clear that he believed Louise was to blame:
“The truth of this case is and always will be that Louise Woodward killed Matty Eappen.”
Just a few hours later, Louise was served papers in relation to a civil suit filed by Sunil and Deborah Eappen in relation to the wrongful death of their son Matthew. They wanted to prevent her from profiting from the case. A settlement was reached which prevents Louise from profiting from telling her story.
When Louise returned to the United Kingdom, she sat down for a Panorama interview with Martin Bashir for the BBC.
Louise told Martin that she certainly has no love for Deborah and Sunil. She again claimed in the interview that she was innocent. She believed that she was used as a scapegoat of sorts as nobody could explain exactly how Matthew had sustained his injuries. She said that in the US Court system:
"The mentality is that somebody has to pay, you know, and that seemed to be the problem, that well, if the parents didn't do it, who did?' There's only you left."
The Trial led to a lot of debate not only about the injuries Matthew sustained and whether they were down to Shaken Baby Syndrome, but it also led to Deborah and Sunil receiving criticism. Deborah in particular received a lot of criticism at the time because she was a working mother. Some were critical that she chose to work instead of stay at home and look after Matthew herself.
Matthew's parents founded the Matty Eappen Foundation at the Boston Children Hospital to improve the safety and welfare of children by educating the public about the dangers of shaking a child and to provide assistance to victims and their families. You can read more about it here.
Sunil and Deborah had two more children after Matthew's death and named them Kevin and Elisabeth.
Louise became a dance teacher, got married, had a daughter and lives in the United Kingdom.
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