The Things That Shaped Our Year: Louise Woodward

From the death of Diana to the birth of Dolly, and from the rise of Bridget Jones to the fall of the Spice Girls - our writers choose the 10 people and events which made 1997 so special
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The Independent Culture
For A while it looked as if the Special Relationship was hanging by a thread. Not since the Boston Tea Party had sentiment in Britain been so hostile towards the cousins across the Atlantic. And again, two centuries on, Boston was the scene of the drama. The stage was a courtroom where on 30 October a jury found Louise Woodward, a 19-year-old British au pair, guilty of murdering an eight-month-old American infant, Matthew Eappen. Under Massachusetts law the judge had no choice but to impose a life sentence, commutable only after a minimum of 15 years in jail.

The young girl's piercing cry when the verdict came in struck the British people to the quick. Emotionally raw, in mourning still over the death of Diana, they were not ready for a second calamity so soon. Or maybe they were. Maybe, having grieved so long, they needed to vent some rage. For rage Britain did. What kind of people are these Americans, who we thought we knew so well? What were they thinking of? How could they have reached such a judgement on evidence so thin? Wasn't it obvious that she was just a nice, regular Middle England lass who didn't possess an ounce of ill-will in her body? Had the jury been asleep during her testimony? What class of barbarians were these?

There had been only one Diana. Suddenly there was only one Louise. No need for the headline writers to mention her surname. She was more than a person now. She had become a cause. For the British people, rallying around as if it were the Falklands War all over again, an injury to one became an injury to all. For was it not as clear as day that she had been the victim of a monstrous injustice?

Maybe, in retrospect, it was not as clear as all that. Whether the prosecution mounted a convincing case might be open to serious question but the fact remains that something bad and violent did happen to little Matty and the only adult in the house at the time was Louise. As for the national impulse not only blindly to defend Louise but then to demonise the dead infant's parents, that does seem now like a descent into something approaching madness, however mawkishly theatrical their performances in court might have been.

From the point of view of just about everyone except the Eappen family, the soap opera had a happy ending. After 10 days of agonising suspense, Judge Hiller Zobel, an Oxford-educated Anglophile, announced that he was reducing the conviction from murder to manslaughter. Judge Zobel, while finding that Louise was indeed to blame for the infant's death, declared that 279 days in jail amounted to punishment enough, thereby at a stroke healing the rift in transatlantic relations and delighting Louise's vast army of supporters both in Britain and the United States.

The appeals - by the prosecution against the judge's decision and by the defence against the manslaughter conviction - are still pending, and last week it looked unlikely that Louise would be spending this Christmas at home. But she should be home by next Christmas to celebrate a happy family occasion - the fun of which little Matty, lest we forget, never had an opportunity consciously to enjoy.

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