Out! Woodward is free after courtroom thriller

Judge Hiller Zobel could have thrown out the murder verdict against Louise Woodward and sent her home. He didn't, but he did the next best thing by reducing her sentence to manslaughter and in effect freeing her. Our correspondent followed another twist in the Boston nanny saga.

In the astounding final act of an American courtroom thriller, Louise Woodward, the British teenager, was allowed to go free last night after her sentence of second degree murder was reduced to involuntary manslaughter.

Judge Hiller Zobel ruled last night that Woodward should serve 279 days in prison - precisely the time she had already spent in custody. However, she will have to remain in Massachusetts, with her passport confiscated, pending an appeal by the prosecution which could take weeks.

Judge Zobel issued his decision to reduce sentence in a dense, but often intensely personal, 16-page order that was to have been published first on the Internet, but which, because of a power-supply problem in the Boston area, was instead disseminated by such old-fashioned technologies as photocopiers and fax machines.

Copies of the text were being sold on the street outside the courthouse by officials for $8 each.

Ms Woodward learned of the judge's ruling from a television in her prison cell.

"After intensive, cool, calm reflection, I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice," the judge concluded.

It means that the19-year-old from Elton, Cheshire, who came to America last year to work as an au pair in her gap year between school and university, no longer faces the mandatory sentence passed on her by Judge Zobel on 31 October - life imprisonment with possibility of parole only after 15 years.

A factor that could have worked against the defence was the decision that it made with Ms Woodward, just before the end of the trial, to deny the jury the chance to consider a manslaughter sentence as an option. It was a huge "all-or-nothing" gambit, that the defence thought at the time would force the jury to acquit. It backfired spectacularly.

There was little outward delight from the defence camp last night, however. Most importantly, there was nothing in the judge's order to offer absolution to Ms Woodward. Instead, he worked from an assumption of responsibility on Ms Woodward's part for the collapse into a coma of baby Matthew Eappen on 4 February and Matthew's death five days later in a Boston hospital.

But, in reasoning that the murder two verdict was too harsh, Judge Zobel depicts a defendant too young and too upset to fully understand her actions and their potentially fatal consequences.

"I believe that the circumstances in which the Defendant acted were characterised by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice (in the legal sense) supporting a conviction for second degree murder".

The judge added that it was a "sad scenario" that should be "most fairly characterised as manslaughter, not mandatory- life-sentence murder. I view the evidence as disclosing confusion, fright, and bad judgement, rather than rage or malice", he wrote.

Although Judge Zobel agreed that the murder two verdict was disproportionate, he rejected two parallel motions filed by the defence. One asked for an instant acquittal of Ms Woodward on the grounds of insufficient prosecution evidence and the other demanded a retrial.

Each possible justification for a re-trial - ranging from adverse pre- trial publicity that may have biased the jury, to the belated discovery of important photographs of Matthew's damaged skull - was ruled as irrelevant by the judge.

Siding with the defence, however, Judge Zobel did not penalise Ms Woodward for her "all or nothing" gamble at the trial.

"Should the Defendant now be permitted to second-guess herself and her lawyers? If one regards the trial of a criminal case as a high-stakes game of chance where losers must accept their losses, the answer is, Certainly Not.", he wrote, but added: "A court, none the less, is not a casino".

Ms Woodward was immediately reunited with her parents in a side room of the court awaiting her release.

It was not clear how long she will have to stay in America awaiting the appeal which the prosecution has only 30 days to lodge.

Ms Woodward's supporters in the Rigger pub in Elton, cheered and shouted with delight as they watched the television.

Some waved large banners with the message: "Thank you Judge Zobel" and some cried and waved yellow ribbons.

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