Nanny Trial: How Louise lost the image battle

The trial of Louise Woodward, played out on television screens across two nations, was ultimately one about image. Jojo Moyes looks at how a `cool, composed child-killer' was pitted against a perfect American couple - and how both sides suffered under scrutiny.
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It was telling that not one of the jury could look at Louise Woodward when the verdict was announced. As she sobbed uncontrollably, it had suddenly struck home that despite the picture of a selfish and callous murderer presented by prosecution, the Eappens and talk shows across America, Louise Woodward was still, ultimately, a very young girl.

Two distinct images of Louise have emerged over the past three weeks; images that exposed huge differences in two nations that more usually stress their cultural similarities.

In Britain, the slightly pudgy teenager with the Alice band had won praise for her unperturbable demeanour in court. A vegetarian, who lived off vending machine snacks in prison in order not to eat meat, she was an intelligent but not streetwise teenager, a fact borne out by her slightly star-struck attendance of the local musical Rent.

Her low-key, slightly unfashionable wardrobe and lack of make-up emphasised her naivety. This was a girl who could talk gigglingly of "tummy-time", of how she would crawl around on her hands and knees in an unembarrassed effort to teach her charge to crawl.

Yet the Louise many Americans saw was quite different. She was, according to the prosecution, a "little actress", a cool, composed, nightmare nanny determined to do whatever she had to do to get off her charge. The nervous half-smiles during her early testimony, a sign to most Britons of extreme youth under heavy pressure, became a sign of her callousness.

As one American man, e-mailing a Louise Woodward Internet site, said yesterday: "To a significant proportion of Americans her English `reserve' seems to be a mark of cold-hearted villainy. Americans' ... popular criterion of emotional health, ie weeping in public, heart-on-sleeve maudlin sentimentality, is generally seen in the UK as repulsive."

In contrast, Deborah and Sunil Eappen's emotional state fully met that "popular criterion". In court they made a huge impact with their controlled testimony, tempered by weeping as they recalled the last moments of their son's life.

As witnesses, they were a legal team's dream. Deborah and Sunil Eappen - known to everyone as "Sunny" - had married in 1990 after meeting at medical school in Chicago. The attractive professional couple, in their early thirties, lived in the leafy suburb of Newton, just outside Boston, and set up a "careful balancing act" between childcare and careers.

Yet even the Eappens' image began to suffer as the trial drew to a close. Since the tragedy Deborah Eappen has received hundreds of letters of condolence. But she has also increasingly been the target of hate mail accusing her of putting ambition ahead of herchildren's welfare.

One commentator said she had been "transformed by personal tragedy into a public symbol of maternal neglect and yuppie greed". And in a TV interview it was noted that the Eappens were relaxed and smiling - the same things Louise had been condemned for during her lengthy court appearances.

Perversely, Louise's image has undergone a transformation in recent days. Yesterday, it was largely the prosecution left still speaking out against her; even the jury, who had lined up in the OJ case for lucrative post-trial deals, did not want to speak to waiting press.

Callers to the Boston Globe yesterday overwhelmingly opposed the conviction. A Boston Herald columnist, Margery Eagan, commented: "It is hard to reconcile that image of rage with the very human young British woman who testified about cuddling Matthew Eappen and giving him lots of tummy- time."

It is hard not to draw comparisons with the case of Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman convicted of murdering her baby, another woman who was too composed for the jury's comfort. She was later acquitted, although her demeanour was still found wanting.

Ironically, as a polished Deborah Eappen yesterday read a lengthy, emotive "witness impact statement", again condemning Woodward for the death of their "butterball" son, it was Louise who commanded the most sympathy; a pale, shaken girl who could only mutter, "I didn't hurt Matty. I don't know what happened", as she was sentenced to life imprisonment.