Manjit Basuta: The woman on the right was a British nanny. She faced 25 years in an American jail. And we went wild with indignation; The woman on the left is a British childminder. She faces 25 years in an American jail. And we couldn't give a damn

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The Independent Culture
This is a tale of two women. Both are British, both went to the United States, both were entrusted with the care of small children. Both were put on trial for the death of one of their young charges - in each case an apparent victim of "shaken-baby syndrome" - and both were convicted in states known for imposing terrifyingly harsh sentences for such crimes.

One of these women, Louise Woodward, is now a household name, thanks to the obsessive media coverage of her trial in Massachusetts, the sympathetic hearing given to her protestations of innocence, the tenacity of her supporters and the high drama of the judicial hoop- jumping by which she eventually got out of jail.

The other woman is Manjit Basuta. Who? Well you may ask. For the last three months Mrs Basuta, a 44-year-old mother of three from Slough, has been on trial in San Diego on charges that she caused the sudden death of a 13-month-old boy attending the day care service that she ran from her home. Her family and friends have lobbied hard to champion her innocence, but not hard enough to stop her being convicted of a crime that, under Californian law, carries a minimum sentence of 25 years.

The similarities with the Woodward case are striking, and yet Mrs Basuta has received only the most cursory attention from the media, either in Britain or the United States. Her supporters, both in Slough and in the Sikh community in San Diego, are convinced that the reason for this difference in attitude is primarily down to Mrs Basuta's race - that and the fact that Louise Woodward was a vulnerable 19-year-old making her first foray into the wider world, while Mrs Basuta is an older woman who has lived in the United States for 10 years.

As with Louise Woodward, the outward facts of the case, however distressing, are relatively simple. In March last year one of the six children in Mrs Basuta's care, 13-month-old Oliver Smith, sustained a nasty head injury and died. A distraught Mrs Basuta tried in vain to resuscitate him, screaming "Breathe, Oliver!" at the top of her lungs while her Guatemalan assistant, Cristina Carrillo, called the emergency services.

The coroner's office determined that young Oliver had died of shaken- baby syndrome, with his brain showing signs of swelling and internal bleeding as a result of abusive handling by an adult. At first, Ms Carrillo backed up Mrs Basuta's story that Oliver had either fallen or been pushed over on the patio by another child. But after three days she changed her story, and accused her employer of shaking the boy in a blind rage until he passed out. Oliver, she said, had been watching television when Mrs Basuta asked him to come and have his nappy changed. When the boy refused to stop watching, she stormed into the room, grabbed him roughly and shook him vigorously as she carried him over to the nappy-changing area.

That was the basis of the prosecution's arguments. For the defence, Mrs Basuta's lawyer put up a spirited fight in arguing that Ms Carrillo was an unreliable witness because she changed her story a number of times, and that the medical evidence was inconclusive.

It is at this point that things start to get murky, since everyone in this story seems to have accused someone else of dishonesty, lying to the authorities and failing to put the interests of little Oliver ahead of their own selfish needs.

According to the prosecution, Ms Carrillo initially backed her employer's version because she was living illegally in the US, and Mrs Basuta had told her that if she didn't co-operate she would be reported to the immigration authorities. According to the defence, Ms Carrillo is simply a liar, and an inconsistent liar at that.

Mrs Basuta's lawyers, rather like Louise Woodward's, believe that the key to the child's death lies in his medical history and the possibility that he had suffered a previous serious fall. Shortly after Oliver was born, his parents went through an acrimonious divorce in which his father accused his mother of abusing the boy. The accusation was later withdrawn, but the defence team suspects that the reason for this retraction might have been the parents' desire to club together and file a $1m civil damages suit against Mrs Basuta.

This line of argument was not given an airing in court because the defence was denied the chance to cross-examine the mother, Audrey Amaral. Mrs Basuta's lawyers believe other key evidence was also withheld, notably the opinions of one expert unconvinced that Oliver's injuries were consistent with shaken-baby syndrome.

Such doubts about the fairness of the trial are counterbalanced, however, by some of the information to emerge about the defendant. According to the prosecuting attorney, Daniel Goldstein, Mrs Basuta was the subject of seven "licence deficiency" complaints about her day care service. She and her husband were also accused of lying to immigration officials when they claimed they had fled India in 1993 to escape persecution as Sikhs, when in fact they had been living in California illegally since 1989.

If there was a problem with the trial, it was - in yet another parallel with the Louise Woodward case - that the defence team miscalculated. Believing their client to have a good chance of escaping conviction without having to endure the ordeal of a cross-examination, they decided not to call her as a witness at all - a decision Mrs Basuta's team now regrets.

One reason for their regret may well have to do with the media. Louise Woodward's public-sympathy ratings shot sky-high on the day of her conviction on charges of second-degree murder, when she broke down in court and hysterically protested her innocence. Mrs Basuta, by contrast, was not given the opportunity to reveal anything of her character during the trial and, in the first phase of her sentencing this week, restricted her emotions to subdued sobbing.

Ultimately, it is the media that is crucial to understanding the reaction to the two cases. Louise Woodward's case first came to public attention in Britain through a 20/20 television documentary that was then fully discussed in the written media, including this newspaper. Because of the interest it was generating in Britain, along with the inherent emotional drama of the death of a small child, the proceedings in Massachusetts were then broadcast in the United States on Court TV.

In no time at all, Ms Woodward was transformed from a simple defendant into something of a media celebrity - with all the attendant hype and transatlantic jingoism that informed the debate on whether she was a disturbed child-killer, or the victim of a grotesque miscarriage of justice. It helped that her story had many colourful angles that looked good on television, notably the impromptu gaggle of supporters that gathered at The Rigger pub in her home town of Elton, Cheshire.

It also helped, from a media point of view, that she was sentenced to life in prison and then reprieved at the last minute when the judge decided to reduce the charges to manslaughter and release her, in the light of the eight months that she had already served. This is the kind of drama on which television news networks can truly feast.

There have been attempts to generate a measure of the same excitement over Mrs Basuta in these latter stages of her trial. Fair Trials Abroad, the British charity that ardently championed Louise Woodward, is adopting the same strategy again, making intemperate statements about the iniquities of US courts while apparently losing sight of the fact that nobody on the other side of the Atlantic - including Mrs Basuta's lawyers - has seriously suggested that she was denied a fair trial.

Such attempts to recruit the mass media received a massive setback this week, however, when Judge William H Kennedy refused to follow the line pursued in the Louise Woodward case and held back from handing down the mandatory 25-year sentence stipulated by Californian law for causing the death of a child under the age of eight.

In a decision that made excellent legal sense, if less than thrilling television, Judge Kennedy suggested that 25 years for an unpremeditated crime might constitute cruel or unusual punishment, and asked the lawyers in the case to formulate arguments on the point for his consideration in early October. It now looks increasingly likely that Mrs Basuta, like Louise Woodward, will get probation plus time served, or at worst a prison term falling far short of the threatened quarter-century behind bars.

What we may be seeing here is not in fact discrimination, racial or otherwise, but a certain evolving maturity in reacting to cases of this kind. In all the hysteria over Louise Woodward, it often seemed that we were watching an international sporting event, rather than mourning the needless death of a child. Mrs Basuta's case may have prompted debate about her guilt or innocence, as these cases often do, but at least the media were not stupid enough, this time round, to suggest that her fate was somehow more tragic than that of Oliver Smith.

If it does indeed turn out that she gets out of prison after a few months, she herself may even conclude that an endless barrage of television cameras and celebrity appearances on chat shows is the last thing she needs.

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