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Mother tells murder trial of fears about British nanny

The mother of baby Matthew Eappen finally took the stand in the trial of the British nanny accused of killing him, Louise Woodward, in Boston yesterday. As David Usborne observed, Mrs Eappen's testimony was compelling and often chilling. For the jury it may have been deeply affecting.

Deborah Eappen testified yesterday that she was allowed to examine her own child, eight-month-old Matthew, moments after he was admitted to hospital in Boston suffering from severe neurological calamity last February and that she immediately recognised symptoms of severe retinal bleeding.

In testimony that could prove to be critical to the prosecution's assertion that Louise Woodward killed Matthew by violently shaking him and slamming his head against a hard surface, Mrs Eappen said: "I knew what that meant, I just couldn't believe it, I just couldn't believe it, when I saw it."

Mrs Eappen, an ophthalmologist, did not need to tell the jury what medical experts had testified in the courtroom earlier - that retinal bleeding is itself a symptom of distress caused by severe shaking inflicted on a child - or shaken baby syndrome.

The remark was at the heart of an hour of testimony by Mrs Eappen under direct questioning by the prosecution. By bringing Mrs Eappen to the stand, the prosecution was hoping to bring its case to the most powerful conclusion possible after several days of often very technical medical testimony.

At the defence bench, Ms Woodward and her lawyers sat grim-faced as Mrs Eappen described serial difficulties she and her husband had encountered with her as their nanny from 18 November 1996, when she first joined them. In mostly negative testimony about Ms Woodward's character Mrs Eappen described, for instance, returning from church on Christmas morning to find her in the kitchen, with a quiche that had meant to have been in the oven all over the floor. She had also "opened her Christmas presents without us".

One week later, on New Year's Eve, Mrs Eappen recalled that Ms Woodward failed to return to the home all night. She added that it was "kind of embarrassing", because her mother was staying with them and also did not know her daughter's whereabouts.

The deepest chill settled over the courtroom, however, when she described the moment of Matthew's death five days after his initial admission. Joining her at his bed were her husband Sunil, Matthew's brother, Brendan, a priest and other extended family members."We were at Matthew's bedside. We all took turns holding Matthew, we played some children's music, we lit my grandmother's candle, we were holding Matthew, we prayed and then he died," she said.

Mrs Eappen described leaving her home in Newton, a Boston suburb, on 4 February. Matthew had been crying; it was the last time she saw him in good health. "Matty just had a little tear on the side of his eye and I dabbed it and I said I didn't like to hear him cry like that. I kissed him and I left."

She said she and her husband had had deepening concerns about Ms Woodward's reliability from the moment of joining the family. Specifically, they included Ms Woodward's repeated late nights in Boston and her failure often to wake up on time to begin her duties in the home. In the first month of her stay at the Eappens "in spite of the fact that [she had said] she wanted to be part of the family, she stayed home only one night".

One morning in mid-January, for example, after Ms Woodward had been confronted about the late nights, she, according to Mrs Eappen, "came home at 2.48 in the morning". She added: "The reason I know the time is that she was wearing big boots and she made a lot of noise. We were just in disbelief."

Mrs Eappen also said she was worried that Ms Woodward failed sometimes to properly supervise Matthew and two-year-old Brendan, while she and her husband worked during the day. She was worried about her being "on the computer doing e-mail, being on the phone for long periods of time and being in the shower when she was supposed to be with the children".

The Eappens gave her the choice on 30 January of either leaving or agreeing to new rules, including a night curfew. Then the Eappens decided not to fire Ms Woodward. "We felt that she was capable, we felt that the kids liked her and we felt that she was motivated to change," Mrs Eappen said.

She told the court that she saw no signs of ill-health in Matthew in the days and hours before the alleged incident on 4 February. She testified that she spoke to Ms Woodward by telephone from the hospital as her son underwent emergency treatment. Ms Woodward, she testified, could offer no clue as to how Matthew may have hurt himself. "She said that he did not bump his head and had not been left unattended".

In cross-examination, defence lawyer Andrew Good asked Mrs Eappen about the discovery in hospital of a wrist fracture that, according to radiological assessments, appeared to have been two to three weeks old. The defence is hoping to demonstrate that Matthew died as a result of an earlier, undetected, injury to his head for which Ms Woodward cannot have been responsible.

If convicted, she faces life in prison without parole.