In a country where justice is all too often showbusiness by other means, the dry-eyed testimony of the British au pair stood in stark contrast to the Eappens' chat-show confessional

It could have been a lot worse. Louise Woodward might have found an au pair job not in Massachusetts, but in one of the 37 states where they impose the death penalty. A jury in a less sophisticated part of the country than Cambridge might have judged that she committed not second- , but first-degree murder. Take Georgia, for example, where another Briton, Nicholas Ingram, was boiled alive two and a half years ago on the electric chair.

America, all callow visitors should be warned, is not a gentle and forgiving place. It is a profoundly violent, institutionally vengeful country, far less familiar beneath the surface than British people, taught to think in terms of Americans as cousins, might imagine it to be. The grimly retributive code of criminal justice in some respects seems to obey more the spirit of Saudi Arabia than Western Europe.

The severity of the men and women of the jury in the Woodward trial does not, certainly, offer grounds for optimism about Louise Woodward's fate. For, as most British observers might agree, these 12 good citizens of Massachusetts appear to be no less consumed by Old Testament notions of justice than their compatriots elsewhere.

The exposure of this side of American life seems to have come as much of a surprise to Americans as Britons. When the defence began in earnest two weeks ago, the tension seemed palpably to ebb from the Cambridge courtroom. This defendant was going to get off, everyone felt.

Even the man on the bench was beginning to enjoy himself. Little quips from Hiller Zobel, the dry-witted and deeply anglophile judge, were popping into the proceedings with ever increasing frequency. The American media, which for months had with abandon portrayed Woodward as a baby-batterer, were also beginning to choose more cheerful headlines. "Louise, Home for Halloween," was one. No wonder when the guilty verdict came it was such a stomach-punching shock.

Nothing can have been more poignant, however, than the Hallmark card sent to Louise by the few inmates she had befriended at the Framingham penitentiary, just outside Boston, where she had been incarcerated while awaiting trial and where, on Friday, she spent the first night of her life prison sentence. On the front was a teddy bear with tears rolling down its eyes. Inside it read: "We'll miss you."

Rarely can the mood of a trial have been more deceiving. Most of those present thought they detected a dwindling of commitment even on the prosecution bench. Poor Gerard Leone, the courthouse wisdom said, did not lay a glove on Louise during his cross-examination of her on the stand. Even he now knew that the murder charge filed by the County District Attorney must surely be ridiculous.

But on Tuesday Mr Leone blindsided his critics with his excoriating closing argument, where for the first time he detailed in graphic, awful detail how he saw Louise on that afternoon of 4 February, losing her patience with an eight-and-a-half-month-old who would not be consoled. The child cried and cried and she shook him. Still he cried. And she slammed his head down. "And Matty wasn't crying any more."

Had Woodward's appeal to the jury's mercy been equally dramatic, had it conformed more to American talk show standards of self-expression, she might have softened their hearts. The national torrent of grief that followed Princess Diana's death prompted commentators around the world to observe that the English had revealed previously unfathomed depths of candour. Yet the evidence of the trial suggests the English still have a long way to go before they can approximate the melodramatic intensity of the folks across the ocean.

Had Woodward been primed to understand that in a country where trials are carried on TV justice becomes showbiz by other means; had she bawled and wept her way through her testimony; had she made a bit

more of an effort with her hair and her make-up and sought to evoke sympathetically plastic Miss America images in the jurors' minds, things might have been rather different.

Instead, she did what came naturally, which regrettably happened in her case to mean behaving with the deadpan restraint commonly associated with the emotionally constipated House of Windsor. A female columnist in the Boston Globe, a newspaper famed for the patrician liberality of its politics, anticipated the jury's response last week in disdainfully describing Woodward as "dry-eyed and moon-faced".

In stark contrast was the performance of the dead infant's parents, Deborah and Sunil Eappen, on CBS television on Wednesday night. They never lost their faith in what they knew to be true, they said: Louise had killed their baby by shaking him so hard his brain was reduced to mush and, her rage still not sated, then smashing his head down on something hard. As for the defence case that he had been felled by an earlier head injury that suddenly, inexplicably, began to re-bleed in his head on 4 February, it was not reasonable doubt; it was a ploy, a "cloud of confusion".

Deborah Eappen spoke of the hate mail she had received. Suffering what she described as "shock layered upon shock", she had found herself at the centre of a national debate about working mothers and the ethics of leaving children to minders while they pursued their work. And millions were taking Woodward's side and piling blame on her, the bereaved mother.

Good-looking and articulate, Deborah, 32, and Sunil, 31, are both promising new entrants into Boston's cliquey medical community, not that long out of training but already advancing with speed. Sunil is an anaesthetist at one Boston hospital; Deborah is an opthamologist at another. After years of study and residencies, suddenly they were on the threshold of respect and prosperity. "We felt happy and secure," Mrs Eappen said in her statement to the court on Friday. "We loved our family, we wouldn't change a thing. On 4 February 1997, all our hopes and dreams were torn apart".

A few unsettling details emerged during the trial. Why was baby Matthew bathed only twice a week? Why was the house always cold, according to Louise, who also testified that Matthew was often handed over to her in the morning with his nappy soaking wet? But these do not appear to have disrupted the image of the Eappens as people with a strong sense of order. Among exhibits at the trial were notes painstakingly taken by Deborah from two telephone conversations with Woodward, even as Matty was in a coma and in the operating theatre. If there was disorder on view here, it was in her virtually illegible handwriting: but then she is a doctor, so that is to be expected.

In the television interview in New York, Mrs Eappen wore the multi-colour caterpillar brooch that had become the symbol of the friends of the family in the trial. The caterpillars were another poignant, sentimental if you like, souvenir of the little boy who had gone. A large toy caterpillar was a favourite of Matthew's - you could pull a string out and it would play "You are my Sunshine".

This combination of emotional mourning and certainty that Louise Woodward was responsible for their loss would have had a powerful effect on anyone who saw the interview. The jurors all told the judge they had not watched it, but perhaps we shall never know for sure whether maybe one or two of them did, whether the Eappens' performance achieved what might have been interpreted as a calculated attempt to influence the outcome of the trial. Little has emerged of what went on in the jury room. US television networks, accustomed to having jurors falling over themselves to be interviewed live, have so far drawn a blank. One sent a limousine to the home of Tracy Mannix, at 24 the youngest juror, to whisk her off to New York. She declined.

Ms Mannix's father, has disclosed that the jury was split 6-6 at first. Gradually the number in favour of acquittal was whittled down during the hours of deliberation, until his daughter was one of the last two to give in. Another 40-year-old woman juror said in a few anonymous comments to a Boston newspaper that the evidence had been highly complex, and that reviewing it had been exhausting. All the more unfortunate for Louise, then, that the four jurors - all male - with the highest educational qualifications were relegated to alternates. They have denounced the decision of their colleagues that the evidence was convincing beyond reasonable doubt.

But this is a society where mercy is out of fashion and rehabilitation is a word used only by weirdo radicals. The incarceration rate, with 1.6 million behind bars, is the highest in the world, six times higher than Britain's (which itself has the highest in Europe). In the US, prison conditions for violent criminals - such as Louise Woodward is said to be - are invariably degrading. In male prisons gang hierarchies rule and the weak, the solitary, the middle-class inmates suffer unspeakable degradation, with rape so routine that prison authorities convey the impression they deem it to be part of the official punishment.

Women's prisons do not offer a much happier picture. In December last year Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organisation, issued a chilling report on the pervasiveness of rape and sexual abuse by male prison officers. "The situation for women in US state prisons is intolerable," said Dorothy Thomas, director of the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project. "Male officers are sexually abusing female prisoners, while the state and federal governments largely look the other way."

In the absence of any visible response by US legislators, Woodward might be well advised, if her sentence is not overturned, to apply promptly for a transfer to a prison in Britain.

The report, noting that "more often than not" women in US prisons are guarded by men, found that "male officers vaginally, anally and orally rape and sexually assault and abuse female prisoners". Using "mandatory pat-frisks", they "grope women's breasts, buttocks and vaginal areas, view them inappropriately while in a state of undress, and engage in constant verbal harassment of female prisoners, contributing to a custodial environment that is often hostile and highly sexualised". Male officers use coercion and reward to obtain sexual favours. "In committing such gross misconduct, male officers have abused their nearly absolute power over female prisoners to force them to have sex, either through actual or threatened physical violence".

These stark facts were probably not uppermost in Louise Woodward's mind when she let out her piercing cry of anguish on Thursday night, but by then it was too late. It remains to be seen whether that harrowingly spontaneous outburst will sway the judge to temper her punishment when court resumes on Tuesday. Or whether Deborah Eappen's exercise in confessional chic, her scripted address to the court about her "chumber-munchkin" prior to sentencing on Friday, will win the day.