Louise must wait again as judges decide her fate

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LAWYERS for Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted of manslaughter after the death of baby Matthew Eappen, indicated yesterday that in the event of a retrial they would ask for the victim's body to be exhumed.

The possibility of a whole new trial for Woodward, 20, emerged as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard appeals from both prosecution and the defence. Even with frequent interjections from the panel of seven judges, the hearing lasted barely 50 minutes.

The defence wants the court to overturn the manslaughter conviction, itself reached only when the trial judge, Hiller Zobel, unilaterally substituted it for the jury's original sentence of second-degree murder. Woodward's lawyers argued that they were unfairly denied access to the baby's skull, which could have proved their case that he died of an injury that was old, and not inflicted, as charged, on 4 February last year. It would be in order to examine the skull that the defence would seek an exhumation in an eventual retrial.

The prosecution, by contrast, attempted to demonstrate that in reducing the sentence and releasing Woodward on time served of 279 days, Judge Zobel abused his powers under Massachusetts statutes. It wants the second- degree conviction reinstated and Woodward sent back to prison to serve life.

The suspense for Woodward, and for the two fiercely-opposing camps supporting her and supporting the Eappen family could last months longer. Technically, the judges have 120 days to vote on their ruling in the affair. When it comes, it will not be read in open court but handed down in written form.

Woodward, who has been unable to leave Massachusetts since the end of her trial, arrived at court with her parents, Susan and Gary Woodward, who have been over in Boston from England for several days.

Elaine Whitfield Sharp, a member of the defence team, said that Woodward, who has been staying at her home north of Boston, had been trying to keep herself distracted, in spite of being unable legally to work or study. As well as going to the gym and reading, she "vacuums the house and pets the cat" she said.

After the hearing, a statement read outside the court on behalf of Deborah Eappen, Matthew's mother, asked that the focus of public attention be switched away from Woodward and back to Matthew, who was nine months old when he died from the head injuries that the prosecution says were inflicted by Woodward shaking and slamming his head.

"We will never know what great things Mattie would have achieved and we will never the know the joy he would have brought to his family. We will never know that because Louise Woodward took Mattie away from us," the statement said.

Both sides were cautious before attempting to interpret the rapid back- and-forth of yesterday's courtroom proceedings. Harvey Silverglate, for the defence, noted however the aggressiveness of Justice Charles Fried as he repeatedly interrupted Sabita Singh, a prosecution lawyer. "I'm encouraged by how pointed some of his questions were," Mr Silverglate said.

After the hearing, the defence conceded it could not rule out the possibility of a retrial. "We are entitled to an acquittal or a dismissal of the charges," Andrew Good of the defence team insisted. "Nothing would satisfy us other than that".

But about the prospect of a new trial, he added: "We would have an unconvicted client. We would not consider that a loss".

All of the defence team, including its most famous member, Barry Scheck, promised that they would continue to represent Woodward at a new trial, even though the Woodward family has already said it would not contest a decision to leave the manslaughter conviction intact because of a lack of funds.

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