The decision in effect closes the book on a trial that stirred deep emotions in Britain especially, but also in America. It was an extraordinary drama leading to her conviction last October of the second-degree murder of Matthew Eappen, and the subsequent ruling by the judge, Hiller Zobel, that reduced the conviction to manslaughter.
For Woodward, 20, who will still carry a manslaughter conviction against her name, it was an escape that almost did not happen. In releasing its decision yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court, which has a panel of seven justices, revealed that it had been reached only by a split vote.
Had the dissenting judges prevailed, they would have upheld Judge Zobel's downgrading of the murder conviction to manslaughter but overruled his simultaneous decision to release Woodward on the 279 days she had already served in prison. Because state guidelines suggest three to five years' jail for manslaughter, Woodward would almost certainly would have gone back behind bars.
In the end, however, the majority found that Judge Zobel had acted within the discretion allowed him under state law. "The sentence imposed by the judge is lawful," it said. "The conviction of manslaughter, together with the sentence imposed, shall stand."
Shortly after the ruling, Woodward left the house in Marblehead where she had been staying with her father, Gary, and headed to an unknown destination. It is expected she will return home this week, as soon as she recovers her passport from the court. "Absolutely fantastic," her mother, Sue Woodward, said in Elton, the family's home village.
After the ruling the parents of Matthew Eappen, Sunil and Deborah, announced the formation of a foundation to educate the public about child abuse. The Matty Eappen Foundation will concentrate on shaken baby syndrome. "The foundation will honour Matthew's brief life and ensure that we never forget his tragic death," said Paul Spellman, the family spokesman and Deborah Eappen's brother. "The goal will be to ensure that other children are not similarly victimised."
But Andrew Good, one of Woodward's defence team, maintained her innocence. "The characterisation and judgment that Louise Woodward is a felon is a matter that we consider to be a miscarriage of justice," he said.
Barry Scheck, another of her lawyers, who was in Oxford, said: "It will mean everything for her to be home. This has been a lonely, tortured period in her life ... This has been a tragic case from the beginning for everyone involved."
Even the majority opinion yesterday expressed grave reservations about the conduct of Judge Zobel. In making his ruling last November, he said that while he thought Woodward had killed the child, she had acted as a young person at the end of her tether.
The four justices underlined: "We do not view the judgment against Woodward as a light matter. She stands guilty of causing an infant's violent death. The outcome of this criminal trial most assuredly was not an 'acquittal'." While the majority said it had no complaint about the "day-to-day handling" of the trial, Judge Zobel had made a mistake close to its end by acceding to a defence request that the jury be allowed to consider only two possible verdicts: not guilty or guilty of murder, thus excluding a compromise of manslaughter. The judge had made an "error in acceding to Woodward's request".
In their dissenting opinion, the three minority justices noted: "Woodward's tactics, with the judge's approbation, transformed the trial from a search for the truth to a high-stakes game of chance. In a phrase, Woodward brought the result on herself."
The dissenting opinion, which bears no legal weight, added that Woodward stood convicted "of a grave act of child abuse" and "should not in the future be entrusted with the care of the children of others". She should be barred from "any activity generating any profit or financial benefit" from the case". That would rule out book or newspaper deals.
Within hours of the ruling, the Eappens filed a civil suit against Woodward, seeking to block any attempt by her to profit from their son's death.
Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, said: "In deciding if they intend to make payment to a criminal convicted in open court such as Louise Woodward, it will be for editors, against the background of the clear advice given by the court in this case, to make a judgement about the specific terms of the code."
Ordinary girl who put the system on trial, page 3
Review, page 3
"She stands guilty of causing an infant's violent death ... The conviction stands"
Appeal judges' majority verdict
"She should not in future be entrusted with the care of the children of others"
Dissenting appeal judges' opinion
"We believe, and we always have done, that Louise is innocent"
Louise Woodward's lawyers