Woodward Case: The champagne flows back at campaign HQ

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The Independent Online
It was the moment they had all been waiting for - Louise Woodward was freed yesterday by Judge Hiller Zobel. Esther Leach and Kate Watson- Smyth watched Woodward's supporters go wild with joy.

"She's coming home, she's coming home, Louise is coming home," her supporters chanted as the champagne corks popped in her home village of Elton, Cheshire.

Woodward's sister, Vicky, 18, who was waiting for the news at her boyfriend's home in Elton, said that she would welcome her sister home by decorating the house with banners, ribbons and flowers.

"I'm so happy, I'm so happy. But I'm in tears," she said before rushing off to the Rigger pub to join in the celebrations. Vicky said she had spoken to her sister minutes after the new sentence and Louise was overjoyed. In a telephone call home, Woodward sent her thanks to all her supporters declaring: "I love you all."

Vicky added that Louise had been expecting a 10-year jail sentence and was overjoyed to be free. "She said she wants to say thank you to everybody. She can't believe it," Vicky said.

She added that she had spoken to her parents: "They just said she is OK and they are going to give her whatever she wants." Her father, Gary, had said: '"I'm speechless. None of us expected this. We were all expecting a sentence of a couple of years or that ilk."

There was no immediate reaction from Matthew's parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, who are believed to have gone into hiding following the publicity surrounding the case. But Sunil Eappen's father, a paediatrician, spoke from his home in Chicago. "The Eappens were outraged and disappointed," he said.

"The revised sentence was totally inadequate. The whole family was devastated. The change of conviction from murder to manslaughter along with the decision to free Louise straight away made the family's recovery even more difficult.

He said he had full confidence that the prosecution would see justice was done in memory of his grandson.

Meanwhile, at the Rigger pub, Jean Jones, a family friend who founded the Elton Fund in February with pounds 22, said: "It's not over. We will fight on for her to prove her innocence."

As people spilt out of the pub, which has been the centre of the Justice for Louise Woodward campaign, celebration fireworks were set off and passing cars beeped their horns. The chanting became louder and louder.

Steve Collins, a long-time family friend who has been taking care of Vicky while her parents have been in Boston, was close to tears: "What a result. It's wonderful isn't it? She's coming home."

Debbie Lalor, who had often asked Woodward to babysit for her daughter Georgina, said: "It's what we have hoped and prayed for. Her mum and dad can put their arms around her tonight. Tonight Louise is free, which is the important thing, but we mustn't forget we fight on to overturn her conviction."

Bertil Hult, the chairman of EF Au Pair, the company that took Louise to the United States, said he, too, was delighted at the sentencing and added that the company would continue to pay any future legal costs incurred by Woodward.

"We believed from the very beginning that she was innocent. I told the lawyers to defend her in the same way as if she was my own daughter. She should not have been arrested in the first place. We were always sure she was innocent."

Outside the court the defence lawyer Barry Scheck said: "Matthew Eappen is dead, nothing is going to change that. This is a very sad matter for all concerned. The judge in his sentence indicated that he was ending this matter in a way that he felt consistent with the law and the facts and the spirit of judicial compassion and conscience.

"We have great sympathy for the Eappen family. This is a terrible loss that they have suffered, we have no criticism of them whatsoever. Terrible, terrible tragedy."

His colleague Harvey Silverglate said that they would carry on with scientific investigations to prove her innocence beyond doubt.

Thomas Reilly, the district attorney, said he was "sickened and saddened" at events he described as "beyond belief". "I have never seen anything like the rapid series of events that occurred today," he said. "No one has. I am saddened and astonished by what happened this afternoon in terms of the sentence." He said he had spoken to the Eappens by telephone: "They are devastated. These are wonderful people. They can't understand it any more than I can understand it.

"They said to everyone, no matter who you are, to stop for a moment and think about Matthew Eappen and remember him," he said.

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