`Woodward baby was strangled', say doctors

A PAEDIATRIC doctor has claimed that the baby the au pair Louise Woodward was convicted of killing in the United States was not shaken to death as was claimed, but strangled.

Dr Floyd Gilles, a neuropathologist, and Dr. Marvin Nelson, a radiologist, reviewed the medical records of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen at the request of the US television channel CBS for a 60 Minutes programme to be shown tomorrow. Both doctors are associated with the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

According to Dr Gilles, someone squeezed Matthew's carotid artery, blocking the flow of blood to his brain. Sometimes when infants are strangled, it can take up to 48 hours for brain swelling to become evident, he said. He said he came to that conclusion because Matthew had "unexplained" injuries on his neck. Both doctors told CBS the evidence suggested Matthew had been serially abused.

A spokesman for the Children's Hospital said yesterday that the two doctors had agreed not to discuss their theory until the CBS broadcast.

Middlesex County district attorney, Martha Coakley, who was a co-prosecutor in the case, called the theory "crazy". "It makes no common sense. It makes no medical sense. It doesn't appear to be backed up at all," she said. "They say they believe their evidence casts doubt on the conviction of Louise Woodward. I believe that's irresponsible."

Ms Woodward was convicted in October 1997 of second-degree murder, which was reduced on appeal to involuntary manslaughter. She was freed to return home in June, after the ruling was upheld on further appeal. In January, she settled a civil wrongful death case with the baby's parents, Drs Sunil and Deborah Eappen of Boston.

Ms Woodward's lawyers claimed that the child was hit on the head about three weeks before his death, and then the injury re-bled, eventually killing him. The prosecution claimed that Ms Woodward shook Matthew for several minutes and slammed his head against a hard object.

Ms Woodward's solicitors said last night they might call for the case to be reopened after assessing the claims. "If [Matthew] died of an older injury then of course it is important to the case and the conviction of Louise," a spokesman said.

Frederic Ellis, the Eappens' lawyer, said the theory that the baby was strangled was absurd. He said experts at the trial said Matthew's only neck injuries were from a medical procedure to try to get him breathing again. He said that Dr Gilles was not a child-abuse expert but an expert in tumours.

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