Woodward parents are cleared of fund fraud

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The Independent Online

The parents of Louise Woodward were formally found not guilty yesterday of defrauding a fund set up to help their daughter fight the charge of murdering eight-month-old Matthew Eappen in the United States.

The parents of Louise Woodward were formally found not guilty yesterday of defrauding a fund set up to help their daughter fight the charge of murdering eight-month-old Matthew Eappen in the United States.

Gary and Sue Woodward, both 44, had been accused of claiming thousands of pounds in false expenses after staying in America during their daughter's trial.

The case at Chester Crown Court collapsed after seven days of evidence had been heard when the judge ordered the jury to find Gary and Sue Woodward not guilty.

Judge John Rogers said the crucial question was whether the jury "could be sure that all the money in the trust fund belonged to the trust and none of it belonged to Mr and Mrs Woodward.

"Was there some money in the trust that belonged to the Woodwards?" he asked. "In the spring of 1997 people from all over this country and further afield sent money - some of it was to the trust, some of it was for Louise and some of it was for Mr and Mrs Woodward.

"Mr Paul Barrow, the trust fund solicitor, said... to me, 'There was no way you could discriminate between personal donations to Louise and the Woodwards and money sent to the appeal'.

"It is my responsibility to have to conclude that the Crown failed to provide evidence on which any reasonable jury could convict, and I have to direct you to return verdicts of not guilty on each count," he told the jury. He said his ruling implied no criticism of theprosecution.

The Woodwards, who are estranged, later appeared on the steps of the court. Their solicitor read a statement in which they said they hoped the acquittal would "draw a line under this whole unhappy and upsetting episode".

The statement said: "From the very beginning we denied any wrongdoing and our protestations of innocence were accepted by the fund trustees, who were the people best placed to judge the competing versions at the time."

The statement said the couple hoped the media would "now leave us and our family alone". They thanked the people of Elton, Cheshire, where the family lived, and elsewhere "who have given us so much support over the last three-and-a-half years".

The Woodwards posed for photographs outside the court, but refused to answer questions.

During the trial, which had been scheduled to last three weeks, the jury was told that donations of about £250,000 had flooded into the appeal fund from around the world after Louise's arrest for the killing of Matthew Eappen.

The au pair, now 22, was convicted of the baby's second-degree murder in October 1997, but the trial judge later reduced the verdict to one of manslaughter and freed her by sentencing her to the 279 days she had spent awaiting trial.

During the case the prosecution alleged the couple used a bogus invoice to defraud £9,113 from the Louise Woodward and Family Trust.

Mr Woodward, a joiner, of Regent Street, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, and Mrs Woodward, a clerical worker, of Marsh Lane, Elton, Cheshire, had been accused of falsely claiming for the cost of accommodation at the home of their daughter's Boston lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, before and during Louise Woodward's trial.

Mrs Whitfield Sharp gave evidence in court against the couple last week.