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State Supreme Judicial Court Initiates Woodward Hearing

By Elizabeth Mehren
Los Angeles Times
BOSTON

The legal fate of British au pair Louise Woodward was handed to the state's highest court here Monday, as defense and prosecution attorneys alike argued that her manslaughter conviction in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen should be set aside.

In the brief, contentious hearing before the Supreme Judicial Court, prosecutors urged the seven-member panel to restore the murder verdict delivered last October by a jury. Woodward was found guilty of causing fatal brain injury when she shook Matthew on Feb. 4, 1997, slamming his head against a hard surface so forcefully that his skull was fractured.

Deputy District Attorney Sabita Singh argued Monday that Superior Court Judge Hiller B. Zobel erred when he exercised judicial authority to reduce the conviction to manslaughter, freeing the 20-year-old baby sitter on time served - 279 days. An unusual provision in Massachusetts allows a judge to modify a jury's action, Singh said.

"But there is one thing that it does not allow him to do, and that is to substitute his judgment for that of the jury," she said.

Defense lawyers were equally insistent in asserting that the prosecution suppressed crucial medical evidence that would have exonerated their client. Woodward's attorneys say they now have scientific proof that the child's fatal injuries could have predated the episode in February 1997.

If samples of Matthew's skull fracture had been provided to the defense, "we could have ended this case before it started," attorney Andrew Good told the court Monday. "We could have proven that this was an old injury."

The Supreme Judicial Court is an appellate body that functions like the U.S. Supreme Court, peppering attorneys with questions and engaging in Socratic dialogue as each side presents a 25-minute oral argument. The court has 130 days in which to issue its decision, and is not required to confine itself to requests made by attorneys in the case.

Depending on this court's decision, Woodward could return to her home in Elton, England, as a free woman, her name cleared. Or she could be sent back to prison in this country, a prospect defense attorney Barry Scheck has said fills Woodward with terror.

A third option would be for the court to call for a new trial. In that event, defense attorneys say they will have the baby's body exhumed to gain additional skull samples.