Woodward case: Out! Sensation as Woodward is freed by judge after court room thriller

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The journey of Louise Woodward over the last 10 days has been sensational, if not surreal. On Hallowe'en, she was a person convicted of second degree murder. Before lunch yesterday, that verdict had become involuntary manslaughter. By dusk, she was a woman set free. David Usborne tries to catch his breath.

If it was a film - as one day it surely will be - the title might have been Woodward Walking. Only 10 days after being convicted of killing young Matthew Eappen and sentenced to a life of incarceration, Louise Woodward was last night a free woman, out of custody and back with her mother and father.

The whole family was obviously delighted at the outcome. In a telephone call to her sister, Vicky, Louise said she had been expecting 10 years and was overjoyed. She spent her first night of freedom in a Boston hotel "eating chocolates and looking out of the window".

In a day as astounding as any other in the five-week-long drama of the British au pair's trial, the presiding judge, Hiller Zobel, did two things to bring it all to what he termed "a compassionate conclusion". He first changed the verdict against Woodward from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter and then, almost more astonishingly, gave her a sentence of 279 days - the time she had already served.

The decision unleashed a gale of delight in the Elton pub, in Cheshire, where supporters, friends and relatives of Woodward had gathered to witness the next act in the drama. "Thank You Judge Zobel," read a placard held high above the crowd.

Woodward, meanwhile, left the court building in Cambridge not in a sheriff's van, as she had countless times before, but in a private car. She and her parents, Gary and Susan, were whisked away for interviews with a British tabloid believed to be paying them pounds 150,000 for exclusive access.

Woodward is free - and wealthier too - but she is not exonerated. She remains convicted of the manslaughter of a baby boy. It was expected last night that her defence team would appeal that finding. At the same time, however, the prosecution was certain to appeal all of the judge's decision yesterday.

Pending those appeals, Woodward will be at liberty but she will continue to be denied access to her passport and is under order to remain within Massachusetts. Thus, there will be no triumphal homecoming to Elton, or not any time soon.

If yesterday was breathtaking, in part it was because of the speed with which it unfolded. No sooner had Judge Zobel issued his ruling on reduction of the verdict than he had summoned all parties back into the courtroom for sentencing in the afternoon.

Brief statements were allowed from all sides and also from Woodward. Entirely composed, she told the court only that she wished to repeat what she had said at her first sentencing - that she maintained her innocence. By contrast, Gerard Leone, the lead prosecutor, sharply attacked the defendant's absence of remorse and asked the judge to pass sentence of between 15 and 20 years.

After leaving his bench for more than 20 minutes, Judge Zobel began a sentencing statement which quickly signalled his intent to give time served only.

In making his decision, he said, he did not been to "denigrate Matthew Eappen's death or his family's grief". Nor, he added, did his show of mercy to Woodward detract from the opprobrium that would remain with her as a person convicted of manslaughter. But the moment had arrived, he asserted, to bring this extraordinary proceedings to a "compassionate conclusion". Neither of Matthew Eappen's parents, Sunil and Deborah, were able to get to Cambridge fast enough yesterday to attend the session.

While judges in the United States are routinely called upon to review the decisions of a jury in such cases, it is extremely rare that they decide to overrule or alter them. Thus, Judge Zobel was ensuring himself a place in the history books.

"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," Judge Zobel concluded.

Plans for the decision to be released by cyber-means, on the Internet, did not work out because of a power drop-off in the Boston area that disabled the computer system that was to distribute it.

A factor that could have worked against the defence was the risk it took just before the end of the actual trial to deny the jury the chance to consider a manslaughter sentence. It was a huge "all-or-nothing" gambit, that was meant to force the jury to acquit. It backfired spectacularly. But yesterday, Judge Zobel said his courtroom was not a "casino" and whatever gambles had or had not been taken, the manslaughter verdict remained, in his view, the appropriate one.

In reasoning that the murder two verdict was too harsh, Judge Zobel depicted a defendant too young fully to understand her actions and their 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 ... I view the evidence as disclosing confusion, fright, and bad judgement, rather than rage or malice".

Although the judge agreed that the murder two verdict was disproportionate, he rejected two parallel motions filed by the defence. One asked for an instant acquittal on the grounds of insufficient prosecution evidence, the other demanded a retrial. Outside the courtroom defence counsel Barry Scheck said:"We have great respect for what he [he judge] did and the courage he showed today."

The prosecution attacked the judge's decision. Gerard Leone said the hardest thing was to talk to Matthew's parents to "try to rationalise what happened in this courthouse". He said it was hard to justify to them that "the killer of their son served approximately the same amount of time that Matthew spent with his mother and father".