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.

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