Murder case girl parents put faith in her innocence

Nine months after her arrest on charges of first-degree murder for the death of small boy in her care, 19-year-old British nanny Louise Woodward faces trial in Boston today. In an interview with David Usborne, Louise's parents expose the depths of their agony as they wait for justice.

Amidst the raw dread painted so clearly on their faces, Susan and Gary Woodward at least have this rock-solid certainty to cling on to: the charges laid against their teenage daughter, which could send her into a prison in the United States for the rest of her life are false. Unimaginably. Stupid, even. That Louise could have killed nine-month-old Matthew Eappen, or any child, is simply not conceivable.

In that, they have unbreakable confidence and they are joined by it. In all else, however, they are two people bereft of faith. Their doubts are manifold: in the fairness of the court proceedings before them, in their daughter's ability to heal herself even if she is acquitted, even in their bonds as husband and wife. For Mr Woodward, his faith in God is imperiled also.

About some things, the couple, who have just come from Sunday service in Trinity Church, Boston, prefer not to talk. Of their success in bringing together a defence team which includes Barry Scheck, a member of OJ Simpson's "dream team" - or how they are paying for it - they remain silent. Questioned about the mother and father of Matthew, they simply choke.

For the Woodwards, their tragedy began on 6 February, when, at 6.30am, the nanny agency that had placed Louise with the Eappen family in Boston during her gap year before university, telephoned the Woodwards' home in the village of Elton, near Chester. "Somebody from the agency told us that there was a problem and that the baby had been taken to hospital and that the police were asking some questions. I was just baffled, I didn't know what was happening," Mrs Woodward explained.

The bafflement turned to petrification - their term - when they saw their daughter being bundled into a police van in Boston on the six o'clock news the same evening. Louise was being accused of shaking Matthew in the bathroom of the Eappen house and slamming his head against a hard surface. At the time, the infant was in hospital, but he died five days later. Initial charges of manslaughter were instantly upgraded to first- degree murder. By the time Mr Woodward got to Boston the next day, Louise had undergone more questioning - with no contact with her parents or any lawyers. He was allowed to see her for the first time that night on 7 February.

Mrs Woodward, especially, is careful before attacking the judicial system that has swallowed her daughter. But the last few months, she explained, have delivered one knock after another. First, there was the refusal of the court to grant Louise bail. "The prosecution said that she would flee the country and go to Brazil. It was ridiculous."

The Woodwards have other reasons for anger. Why has the court refused to admit as evidence the results of a lie detector test taken by Louise in May which she passed? Why has the prosecution put Mrs Woodward on its list of potential witnesses, meaning she will not be able to visit Louise during the trial, or even be in court?

Above all, they are angered by the court's refusal a week ago to dismiss the case following revelations that some of the brain tissue taken at the autopsy of Matthew has since been lost. "You have to wonder what other things we don't know about," Mrs Woodward noted.

As a couple, they are managing only to "function, with our lives in a vacuum", Mr Woodward said. It is he who nearly breaks down in tears when we discuss the church service they have just left. "It is difficult to keep my faith," he conceded, hands together, pressed against his face.

But for both the Woodwards there was this one sign of hope in the service. "Make me a Channel of Thy Peace", was sung as one of the hymns. It is Louise's favourite.