Louise Woodward faces new trial

THE SIMILARITIES between the cases of Louise Sullivan, from Australia, and Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted in the United States of killing a baby in her care, have always been inescapable. Yesterday, however, their stories diverged. The Sullivan trial was over before it had even started. The Woodward affair, on the other hand, just goes on.

The tale of Louise Woodward is one that has never lain down. Indeed, her trial at the end of 1997 in Boston had more twists than would have been believable in a suspense novel. Hopes soared in those weeks of testimony that the British au pair would be acquitted. Then they were dashed when the jury delivered its verdict - guilty of second-degree murder.

More drama followed. Within days, Judge Hiller Zobel had unilaterally reduced her conviction to one of manslaughter and ordered her release after sentencing her to the 279 days in prison already served. An appalled prosecution accused the judge of undermining the entire jury system. Finally, last June, the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the reduced verdict. By that time, Woodward was already home.

But even now, as she studies law in London, Woodward is still not released from her legal nightmare in America. In the next few days, a new jury trial will begin, this time to assess damages she may owe Sunil and Deborah Eappen, the parents of the dead child, Matthew.

It will not quite be a replay of the criminal trial. There will be a different judge, and lawyers to defend her, but Woodward herself will not be in court. The trial is likely to end with a damages award of millions of dollars.

The Eappens are seeking compensatory damages, derived from the earnings Matthew may have collected in a lifetime, plus punitive damages for engaging in "wilful, wanton, and reckless conduct" in Matthew's death - the legal underpinnings of man-slaughter in Massachusetts.

Collecting such funds may be another question. But lawyers for the Eappens are expected to serve notice that they will use such an order, if not to collect a fortune that she clearly does not have, then at least to prevent her from making any financial gain from her story, for example through a book. That would imply pursuing her through the courts in Britain - and opening still another chapter in the saga.

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