Court fire dashes hope for Louise

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IT WAS never going to be a straightforward conclusion to what has become one of the most extraordinary court cases ever. According to the script editors it was supposed to be the day that the British au pair Louise Woodward begin an appeal hearing that would decide whether she walked free or was sent back to jail for killing baby Matthew Eappen.

Television crews and excited news editors had prepared themselves for an hour of impassioned speeches, tearful relatives and rabble-raising from supporters back in Britain.

Court 13 of the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston, Massachusetts, was packed six minutes before the appeal was due to begin. Moments earlier Woodward, 20, had arrivedthrough a throng of camera crews and TV reporters.

The drama, however, came from an unexpected source. Five minutes before the start, fire alarms and flashing lights were activated. Hundreds of people were ushered out and commentators started speculating about a bomb threat.

Firefighters started rushing into the building. They found that an electrical transformer in the basement of the 15-storey building had caught fire.

Emergency services said later that at least five people had been taken to hospital after an explosion and a fire in the electrical vault area of the building.

One man, a maintenance worker, was suffering from burns and four others, including court officers and one prisoner, were suffering from the effects of smoke. The cause of the fire was not known but firefighters said it was accidental.

Meanwhile the officials in court 13 announced that the hearing would be postponed until Monday. Woodward is believed to have left the building almost immediately.

The two legal teams had intended to present their 25-minute arguments to back up lengthy written submissions already handed in to the seven Supreme Court justices.

Both prosecution and defence are appealing against her manslaughter conviction for the killing of the baby while she was caring for him.

The prosecution is to ask for the jury's second degree murder verdict to be reinstated and a life sentence imposed, with no possibility of parole for 15 years. The defence is seeking a quashing of all convictions.