Louise, her lawyer, and a very public bust-up

While the British au pair awaits the result of her appeal, a damaging side-show has been unwinding

IT WAS more than your regular lawyer-client relationship. While Elaine Whitfield Sharp had been the most junior member of the defence team representing the British au pair Louise Woodward at her murder trial last year, she had also become her client's best friend and most trusted supporter. No one was surprised when, once the trial was over and the appeals process had begun, she took Ms Woodward into her home as her lodger.

It seemed the perfect arrangement. Ms Woodward had been through months of torture. The jury had found her guilty of second-degree murder in the death of the eight-month-old Matthew Eappen, who had been in her care. That meant at least 15 years behind bars. Two weeks later, the judge, Hiller Zobel, had downgraded her conviction to manslaughter and had released her on "time served" of 279 days. She was free. But, her passport confiscated by the courts and unable legally to work, she was also stranded.

As it turned out, the arrangement was not perfect. As Ms Woodward shopped, worked out and bided her time in Marblehead, the Boston suburb where Ms Whitfield Sharp and her husband, Daniel, have their home, the friendship began to disintegrate. Periods when her parents visited from England were no less tense. It was not long before the Sharps reached the unhappy conclusion that the Woodwards were house guests from hell.

Just how badly things went wrong would normally have remained private. Few knew of it when Ms Woodward left the Whitfield Sharps on 27 March. Now it has become public, the falling-out of the hosts and their guests has taken on the life of a mini-series all of its own. Allegations have started to fly and the consequences for both sides - but for Louise Woodward especially - are potentially disastrous.

The lid first blew off when Ms Whitfield Sharp was arrested for drunken driving in the early hours of 22 May. A state trooper had watched her car as it slalomed across three lanes of a highway and struck the central reserve barrier. The British-born lawyer was unable to walk in a straight line or recite the alphabet beyond N. The real sensation, however, was what the trooper wrote in his report. Ms Whitfield Sharp, he said, had spoken of being under stress because of the Wood- ward case. He quoted her: "I thought she was innocent, but now I know she is guilty and I can't handle it."

Elaine Whitfield Sharp strenuously denied the trooper's version of events. A few days later, however, the Mirror in London printed transcripts from telephone calls Ms Whitfield Sharp had allegedly made to a friend complaining about Ms Woodward. In fact the friend was no friend at all but a freelance reporter who took care to tape-record the conversations. In them, Louise Woodward was described by her lawyer as a "duplicitous monster". What provoked particular bitterness in Ms Whitfield Sharp was her belief that the former au pair and her parents had been secretly negotiating to sell their story.

The lawyer regarded this as the betrayal of a promise made by Ms Woodward early last November, drafted for her by her lawyers, in which she explicitly pledged to resist the temptations of media deals. "I have no intention of exploiting this tragedy," it said. The Daily Mail, alone, reportedly paid the Woodwards for an interview conducted with her parents, Sue and Gary Woodward, in November, after Judge Zobel's ruling to reduce the conviction. Their daughter did not participate.

The Whitfield Sharps, meanwhile, found themselves cast as intermediaries in subsequent proposals that arrived on the fax in their home office. They handed these on to the family. In the phone conversations with the freelance journalist, Elaine Whitfield Sharp is heard complaining of one occasion in March when Sue and Louise Woodward had gone out, claiming they were going for dinner with another of the defence lawyers, Harvey Silverglate. Mr Silverglate denies that the meeting took place. According to Ms Whitfield Sharp, the Woodwards were meeting a book publisher. Counter- allegations that the Whitfield Sharps acted as willing mediators in deal negotiations appear to be untrue.

ONE DAY - perhaps with a book deal of her own - Elaine Whitfield Sharp may go on the record about what else led her to change her opinion of her client. When she does, watch out for the kitchen table episode. It seems petty but it could become telling. Ponder it in the context of the trial and especially Louise Woodward's denial of the prosecution's contention that on the day that Matthew slipped into a coma she had told a police officer in the Eappen home that she might have been "a little rough" with the infant. Only after the trial, did we learn that she had used that phrase during a polygraph test which was never admitted as evidence.

Though not valuable, the kitchen table in question is an heirloom that Elaine Whitfield Sharp is especially fond of. According to one source, she has told friends she saw Ms Woodward sitting plumb on the table making a telephone call when her weight caused a leg to begin to crack. The lawyer says she gently challenged Ms Woodward about what she had just done to the leg. Her guest allegedly denied that she had sat on the table at all; she had only leant on it slightly.

Come the final parting of their ways on 27 March, it appears that it was Louise Woodward who took the initiative and packed her bags. The trigger had been a row about a note from the lawyer complaining about friends of Louise entering her house via the main office door. The note asked that in future Ms Woodward should have her visitors use the side door. That, apparently, was too much for the 20 year old, and from Marblehead, she went first to the home of Tim Hunt, a fellow Briton and founder of a support-Woodward group in Boston. More recently, she is thought to have moved on again to other friends.

It was on 1 June that things started to get really messy. Elaine Whitfield Sharp's colleagues on the defence team, Mr Silverglate and his Boston partner, Andrew Good, as well as the New York-based Barry Scheck, issued a statement announcing her dismissal from the case. In an extraordinary display of unlawyer-like cattiness, the statement suggested that "Ms Sharp has at times exhibited an aberrant pattern of behaviour". References to her drinking were also included.

Last week Sky News had its scoop - an interview with Daniel Sharp in which he accused Louise Woodward's mother of forging an invoice to claim dishonestly nearly pounds 9,000 from the trust fund set up to finance Woodward's appeal by supporters back home in Cheshire. The invoice, he pointed out, was for expenses reimbursed to him and his wife for time spent in their home. But he insisted he and his wife had neither charged the Woodwards during their stay, nor written them any such invoice.

THE allegation that the Woodward family has been skimming money from the fund is a serious one. Last Tuesday members of the fund, at a special meeting in Cheshire, voted unanimously to ignore the charges, which remain unproven, and to reaffirm their continuing support for the family. But no effort was made to address the central issue - is the invoice indeed a forgery or is it not. It is one or the other.

This commotion has distracted attention from the one show in town that matters: the deliberations of the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston. For over three months - much longer than most observers expected - the court has been weighing appeals from both sides in the case lodged at a hearing on 9 March. In all likelihood, a ruling will finally emerge within a few weeks. Once more Louise Woodward's fate is in the balance.

In theory, the panel of seven judges could acquit Woodward entirely. The best she can probably expect, however, is that the court upholds the decision of Judge Zobel, which would allow her to go home, though with a manslaughter conviction against her name. But the court has three further options: it could order a resentencing on the manslaughter conviction, ask for an entirely new trial to be heard, or over-rule Zobel and reinstate the jury's mur- der conviction and original sentence.

The long delay is making the defence team - or the three who remain on it - anxious. Last week, it tried once more to challenge the medical evidence of the prosecution, filing a motion demanding details of a previous case in which the coroner who conducted the autopsy on Matthew apparently botched his examination of a body in an earlier manslaughter case. The court is unlikely to pay attention, however. As one lawyer observes, the challenge may have been a CYA motion, or "cover your ass". The defence team may be manoeuvring to protect itself against any "ineffective assistance of counsel" suit that Ms Woodward might be tempted to file against it should things go badly for her.

No one can be said to come out well from the tragi-comedy of the last few weeks. Ms Whitfield Sharp has not enhanced her career. The standing of Ms Woodward and her parents has surely been damaged. If a retrial is ordered, that could be crucial. You might argue it was the tidal wave of public sympathy that weighed on Judge Zobel last November and rescued Louise Woodward from years behind bars. Would that wave materialise again?

Louise: the unfolding drama

Summer 1996 Louise Woodward leaves for Boston to work as an au pair.

Nov 1996 After parting from her first host family, Woodward arrives in the home of Sunil and Deborah Eappen. Both are doctors. They have two children, Matthew, five months, and Brendan, two years.

4 Feb 1997 Matthew is rushed to hospital suffering convulsions. Woodward is arrested and charged with assault.

9 Feb 1997 Matthew is removed from life support and dies. Charge against Woodward subsequently upgraded to murder.

6 Oct 1997 Trial of Woodward begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both sides present complicated medical evidence. Prosecution says 2.5-inch fracture in Matthew's skull was inflicted by Woodward viciously shaking and then slamming the boy against a hard surface. Defence argues that the fracture was several weeks old and a smaller incident triggered bleeding on 4 February that led to his death.

30 Oct 97 The jury returns second-degree murder guilty verdict. Automatic sentence is a minimum of 15 years in prison.

10 Nov 97 Judge Hiller Zobel offers his version of what happened, reducing the conviction to manslaughter and sentence to the 279 days already served. Woodward is free, though ordered to stay in Massachusetts. Woodward subsequently moves into the Whitfield Sharp home.

9 Mar 98 Supreme Judicial Court in Boston hears appeals from both sides.

25 May 98 Deborah Eappen gives birth to a son, Kevin, 7lbs 8oz.

1 June 98 Whitfield Sharp dismissed from defence team after claims she cast doubt on Woodward's innocence when arrested for drunken driving.

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