Nanny Trial: Sharp contrast in US justice style

Louise Woodward's trial has highlighted justice, US-style. Kim Sengupta examines the differences in the judicial system across the Atlantic, and asks whether the young nanny received a fair hearing by British standards.
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The Independent Online
The names sounded so reassuringly familiar, the court was in a town called Cambridge, a county called Middlesex. But that is where the similarities ended. The trial and subsequent conviction of Louise Woodward showed up the chasm between the administration of justice in this country and in the United States.

The case was always going to be a cause celebre, but no one could have foreseen the scale of controversy it whipped up on both sides of the Atlantic.

British television viewers had seen how proceedings in US courtrooms can almost turn into a three-ring circus during the OJ Simpson trial. But with the fate of a 19-year-old Englishwoman hanging in the balance, the perceived shortcomings came starkly home.

The most striking difference was the deluge of publicity surrounding the case. Court TV broadcast the proceedings live daily to its 33 million subscribers. It was often in the style of a macabre soap opera with trailers for juicy future episodes like Louise's appearance in the witness box.

This coverage was then used for a separate, parallel public trial with material which would have been considered grossly prejudicial in Britain being bandied around on radio and television. In phone-ins and live TV, "experts" debated the issues, with some convicting the nanny as a baby killer.

Then came interviews with relatives, including a moving one with baby Matthew's parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen. On Wednesday, while the jury was still considering its verdict, Mrs Eappen told CBS: "I think she intentionally and deliberately killed Matthew."

All this would have been impossible in Britain where, during the trial, the reporting must be contemporaneous and restricted to courtroom proceedings under the Contempt of Court Act l981.

There were other differences. In Massachusetts, the defendant has the right to choose not to be tried on one of the charges. Louise's defence team chose not to be tried on the manslaughter charge. This effectively put the jury in a strait-jacket. In Britain the jurors would be able to consider both murder and manslaughter.

The question is raised on why Barry Scheck, Louise's high-profile lawyer who was part of the successful OJ Simpson defence team, chose to go for this "loose or noose" tactic.

The prosecutor too came in for criticism. Louise was a political " puppet" charged with first-degree murder to help the election prospect of the District Attorney, Thomas Reilly, according to Peter Elikann, chairman of the criminal justice section of the Massachusetts state Bar Association.

Even lawyers criticised the proceedings. Jonathan Caplan QC, said: "The more you see these trials, they show you what a shambles the American criminal justice system is." Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz spoke of a "runaway jury".