Moments that made the year: A tale of two cities - with two very different endings

Louise Woodward trial

A baby-sitter is accused of murdering the infant in her care. Born into a white suburban home on the outskirts of one of America's biggest cities, the toddler's name was Matthew and his life lasted just a few short months. The trial is complicated and laden with conflicting medical evidence. But the jury apparently has little difficulty in reaching a verdict: the defendant is found guilty and the sentence is life imprisonment.

Read this, and unless you spent 1997 on a different planet, you would be forgiven for assuming that the child in this case was eight-month-old Matthew Eappen and the childminder the 19-year-old British au pair Louise Woodward. You would, however, be wrong. Nor, by the way, is the city Boston. It is Chicago.

The trial of Donna Gist ended just 10 days ago. She was convicted in a DuPage Country Court on 15 December of the murder of Matthew Hendrickson, who was four-months-old. The similarities between this and the Woodward case were striking and eerie. More important, however, is this singular difference - this courthouse was not besieged by reporters and television crews. In fact, the Donna Gist trial barely registered outside the court. Nor did her conviction. There has been no Free Donna Gist Campaign.

The easiest explanation for the absence of publicity in the Gist case was that Court TV - the cable channel that fed pictures from the Woodward trial to Sky News and the news bulletins of ITN and the BBC - did not cover it. Even if the cameras had been there, however, it is a fair bet that few would have been interested in the trial anyway. Gist was not Woodward. At 34-years-old she is nearly twice Woodward's age and comes from a poor background. She is also black.

"To the unfortunate extent that race plays a role in social standing in our society, that Gist is black is doubtlessly a factor in her obscurity," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, as the Gist trial wound down.

But is was not just Woodward's colour that was important, Zorn said. "If the au-pair trial cynics had asked if everyone would have been so fascinated by Louise Woodward's story had she been white but 15 years older and a career caregiver of more modest means and prospects, the answer would have been the same: No." Thus, if Woodward had not been a young, intelligent, not bad-looking white girl with, one assumes, hopes of a happy and fruitful life, would we have seen such an outcry when her original guilty verdict came down on 30 October? Events in Chicago suggest not.

When she counts her fortunes, Woodward will doubtless think first of her trial judge, Hiller Zobel. He stunned the legal world on 10 November when he slashed the jury sentence from murder to manslaughter and freed her on the 279 days she had already served. But she might also pause to ponder exactly why her case - unlike Donna Gist's - so fired public emotion and the role that played in giving her back her freedom.

Most journalists who covered the trial, this correspondent included, will probably admit they were not prepared for the extraordinary dimensions that the story took on. Even in hindsight, it is not immediately apparent why it commanded the headlines in the way it did, and for so long. But the answer surely lies in the trial's cast.

For readers of newspapers and followers of the television news, this was a tragedy filled with players that were familiar to us. And we could identify with the multiple issues raised by the case too. Was it right for Matthew's parents, Deborah and Sunil, two young professionals on the threshold of successful medical careers, to sub-contract care for their two young children to a teenager with scant experience in the area? The authors of the hate-mail that buried the Eappens during the trial obviously thought it was not.

And even if we are not ourselves 18-year-olds in that tantalising "gap- year" between school and university when whole new horizons suddenly open up, many of us have been there and know teenagers who are there now. Some of us may not have warmed to Woodward - indeed, we may, since the trial's end, have concluded privately that she was responsible somehow for Matthew's death even if she did not plot to murder him - but we think we can easily divine her.

There was some celebrity attraction to the case before the trial even started: the lawyers hired to represent Woodward, a workaday pair of defence lawyers from Boston's waterfront, named Silverglate and Good, had managed to recruit Barry Scheck to their team, already famous as one of the "dream team" that represented OJ Simpson. "There was someone with whom almost everyone could identify in this case," said Shari Turner, a professor at Boston University. "It mainstreamed some of the issues. For instance, people are enormously ambivalent about child care."

The extraordinary public impact of the Woodward trial - it took up all of October and will come blazing back in March when the Massachusetts Supreme Court begins hearings on appeals from both sides - would not matter if we believe this from Judge Zobel: that in making his decision on whether to revise the original jury verdict he was able completely to isolate himself from all the ballyhoo.

In one of his many "off-the-record" chats with journalists, Judge Zobel reported being bombarded with letters, phone calls, FedEx packets and telegrams from people all around the country offering advice on what he should do. He ignored it all, he said, just like he ignored the tidal waves of opinion and punditry on the television and in the newspapers.

Well, possibly. But ask yourself this: had the cameras not been in court for Woodward's trial, had there not been such intense interest in it as it played out and had there not been such a tornado of public reaction to her initial conviction on 30 October, are we really to believe that Judge Zobel would have come back 10 days later in the way that he did and overturned that conviction?

If you are not sure of the answer, think about Donna Gist. And don't hold your breath waiting for her judge to bring her last-minute salvation.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    SAP Data Migration Consultant

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

    Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

    £300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice