Why Public Balks at Nanny Verdict

Tomorrow, a judge hears motions to overturn guilty verdict in the au pair trial.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Public perception and a jury's verdict are again at odds.

When O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, in 1995, a majority of Americans criticized the verdict.

A similarly vigorous public backlash - on both sides of the Atlantic - is developing in the wake of the so-called nanny trial. Last week, 12 jurors in Cambridge, Mass., found British au pair Louise Woodward guilty of murdering an eight-month-old infant under her care. She faces a life sentence in prison.

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While its not unusual for the public's and jurors' perceptions of innocence to differ, the nature of this case is producing an exceptionally wide opinion gap. Public passions may be further roused or quelled by a hearing tomorrow when a Massachusetts judge will hear defense arguments for the verdict to be set aside or the charges reduced.

Most people polled - both here and abroad - strongly disagree with the jury's second-degree murder verdict. Local polls show that 71 percent of respondents think the jury made a mistake. MSNBC's viewers disagreed with the verdict 3 to 1. And England's Sky television found that 9 out of 10 viewers believed Woodward did not receive a fair trial.

Some of the difference between the views of jurors and the public can be attributed to the quality of attention given to the case. It is much different, say legal experts, for the jurors who sit five feet away from witnesses than for a public that may catch bits of coverage on television or get its facts filtered through the eyes of journalists.

"The jury sees it without any mediation," says Boston criminal defense attorney Evan Slavitt. "They see no reactive interviews with angry parents or other media coverage. Theirs is total reaction to the evidence."

But there is more going on here - both with the jury and the public - than just the normal mechanics of a murder trial, say legal and ethics experts.

"There's a whole bunch of things going on with this case that people identify with," says David Rossman, a law professor at Boston University. "There's a reaction to the death of a baby. There's a reaction to a 19-year-old innocent-looking English girl, a reaction to working mothers and child care."

Sunil and Deborah Eappen, parents of eight-month-old Matthew who allegedly suffered a fatal head injury while Ms. Woodward was caring for him, are both working medical doctors. They hired Woodward last winter through the EF Au Pair agency in Cambridge. Woodward lived in the Eappens' home, working 45 hours per week for about $140.

After the child died in February, Woodward was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The evidence - the child's injuries and a policeman's statements that Woodward admitted she was rough with the child - seemed overwhelming and the public believed she was guilty.

BUT during the trial, public opinion began to shift. Simpson defender Barry Scheck presented a panel of top medical experts who claimed the baby's head injury occurred three weeks earlier than the date he was taken to the hospital. The child also had a broken wrist that both prosecution and defense medical witnesses said occurred three weeks before the death as well. And Woodward herself took the stand, proclaiming her innocence.

"A reasonable defense was presented, and people began to wonder if they had jumped to conclusions too quickly," says Susan Samuelson, a law professor at Boston University. "The verdict caught people unaware. They were still moving toward reasonable doubt."

How jurors reached their decision is slowly becoming public. One juror, Jodie Garber, reportedly told British media that the jury relied on the medical evidence and that Woodward acted in the heat of the moment. "Nobody thought Louise intended to kill the baby," Ms. Garber said. "The judge's instructions were that we had to decide whether a reasonable person would have known the actions she took would have resulted in the baby's death."

The jury apparently felt that someone must be held accountable, says Ross Cheit, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "If [Woodward] didn't do it, who did? There really isn't any evidence that the parents did it. And that's so offensive."

But the general public says reasonable doubt exists. The defense lawyers' medical experts are cited again and again as creating sufficient doubt about the nature and timing of the injuries. Still, perceptions are also shaped by issues not directly related to the charges. The public has judged harshly the Eappens as parents. Why did they allow someone so young care for their two young children? Why did they not get more experienced child care?

"[Public anger] has to do with our mixed feelings about women in the workplace and these kinds of arrangements where people have other people take care of their kids," says Dr. Cheit. The parents were "clearly well to do and they have an arrangement that cost them $140 a week. It sounds exploitative."

The judge, however, has left a door open. At Woodward's sentencing hearing on Friday, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel did something unusual. He invited the defense attorneys to file motions by today, and be ready for a hearing tomorrow. He gave them two options: ask to reduce the charge to manslaughter, which carries a much lighter sentence, or argue the evidence does not support the verdict and seek a new trial.

"It's interesting because he wasn't telling them something that they didn't already know," says Dr. Rossman. "He was hinting very seriously you wouldn't be wasting your time."

Mr. Slavitt agrees. "We have 70 superior court judges [in Massachusetts]. He is one of two or three who might do it." He says it is the hardest thing for a judge to do, but that Judge Zobel won't be cowed by media coverage. "He has the courage of conviction. If he truly thinks the weight of evidence is against the verdict, he will set it aside."

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