New facts expose flaw in case against British nanny accused of murder

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The Independent Online
On Monday, the British nanny Louise Woodward, 19, will appear in a United States court, charged with murdering a nine-month-old baby in her charge. If convicted, she will receive life imprisonment, without parole. Jojo Moyes examines concerns that she will not get a fair trial.

The counsel for the prosecution in the trial of Louise Woodward at the Massachusetts Superior Court will claim that it is the simple case of a baby murdered by a nanny unable to cope with his incessant crying. But missing evidence, the lack of an independent autopsy and prejudicial coverage, say Ms Woodward's supporters, all suggest the Cheshire teenager's guilt is far from proven.

"I'm flabbergasted at how the procedures have differed from anything you would get in Britain. I'm very angry and I'm very frightened," her father, Gary Woodward, told The Independent yesterday. "But I can't let Louise see how worried I am. She's petrified."

Ms Woodward travelled to the US after a short course in childcare, during her year out. Last November, she moved in with the Eappen family in Boston, looking after two boys: Brendan, aged two, and nine-month-old Matthew.

On 4 February, police received an call from Ms Woodward, saying Matthew had become ill. He was taken to hospital, but died, after emergency surgery, five days later. According to police, she confessed that she may have shaken him after becoming upset by his crying. She was taken into custody, charged with assault and battery, and subsequently murder, which she denies.

The case, according to the American media, is cut and dried. The autopsy revealed a two-and-a- half-inch fracture at the back of Matthew's head, which the prosecution say was caused by a severe blow.

The timing of the injury is the cornerstone of the case against Ms Woodward; they say it occurred just hours before the baby got to hospital. But the nanny's own - previously unpublished - testimony, which will tonight feature on ITV's The Big Story, contradicts this. Matthew, she said, had been crying all day. When she checked on him she found "he didn't look normal. I think he had changed colour. I don't think he was focusing ... I picked him up and he vomited. So I assumed he choked".

It was at this point that she admitted to shaking him; not out of frustration, but in an attempt to save him. "I was just like, you know, Matthew. I was calling his name ... He wasn't doing anything."

The defence will argue that Matthew's head injury could have occurred two days earlier - when the nanny was not working. But a number of factors are hampering their case.

Despite repeated requests, the Big Story discovered, key samples of the baby's brain have not been made available. A week ago Ms Woodward's lawyers were told that roughly 48 sq cms of the brain tissue had "gone missing"- doctors having apparently thrown it away. Judge Hiller Zobel ruled that this had happened "carelessly, not maliciously" and that it was "not prejudicial", although the disappearance went against a court order.

Stephen Jakobi, of the organisation Fair Trials Abroad, says the court will hear another piece of evidence: that Matthew was found to have a week-old wrist fracture.

"Either there's some condition accounting for the fact that the wrist was fractured and the baby was coping with it so that nobody noticed. Or it could have been someone else - it occurred while Louise wasn't around, as far as we can work out. All this adds up to reasonable doubt," Mr Jakobi, who has been advising the family, said yesterday.

But Ms Woodward's lawyers have another problem: Matthew's body was buried before the defence team could perform an independent autopsy. Bernard Knight, one of Britain's leading pathologists, said: "What disturbs me is that there is no second autopsy, that some of the specimens seem to have vanished and that some statements from the medical witnesses well before trial ... are so prejudicial. The whole thing just seems wrong."

From prison Ms Woodward recently agreed to a lie detector test, after which the examiner said he was "95 per cent certain" she was truthful. Judge Zobel ruled the results inadmissible. Ms Woodward has been refused bail, on grounds that she may try to flee.

Her mother, Sue, has been in Boston and visits daily to keep her spirits up. But due to the district attorney's decision to call her as a potential witness, Mrs Woodward will not be allowed to see her daughter for the duration of the trial.