Woodward drama at end as Eappens settle

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THE LONG-AWAITED civil trial in the Louise Woodward murder case was averted at the eleventh hour last night after the former au pair and the parents of Matthew Eappen, the toddler who died almost exactly two years ago while in her care, reached a surprise out-of-court settlement.

The deal, which should mean the final lowering of the curtain on the legal drama that propelled the Woodward name on to front pages worldwide, was unveiled in Boston by lawyers for Sunil and Deborah Eappen. It aims to bar Woodward from profiting from her notoriety by selling her story.

The civil trial, which would have been held with a jury but without the attendance of Woodward, was to have got under way in Boston in the next few days. The Eappens were seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the death of their son, which could have run to millions of dollars.

Woodward, 20, was originally convicted of second-degree murder in her criminal trial in October 1997. In a surprise twist, however, the trial judge shortly afterwards reduced the conviction to one of manslaughter and freed her on the 279th day she had already served.

Matthew Eappen, who waseight months old, died on 9 February 1997, five days after being taken to hospital with head trauma. The Eappens filed their wrongful death lawsuit in June last year, one day after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the manslaughter conviction and allowed Woodward to return to Britain. Raised in Elton, Cheshire, she is now studying law at a university in London.

A lawyer for the Eappens, Frederic Ellis, said the settlement would ensure that Woodward "does not profit from the killing of their eight-month- old baby". There was no information on whether any money will change hands between Woodward and the Eappens.

In a statement, the lawyer said "enforcement action" would be taken in the event that Woodward violates the agreement, and that any profits she made would be seized and donated to the Mattie Eappen Foundation, a charity established by the Eappens. Mr Ellis said he was confident that any breach of the agreement could be challenged through the British courts.

"It's a contract and with any contract there's always a chance that it won't be honoured," he said. "If she doesn't honour it, we will bring another action and that action would have to be in England."

Paul Barrow, the lawyer for Woodward, left open the possibility that his client could still tell her story. He said, however, that any proceeds would be given to the charity of her choice, which would be Unicef. "Louise has always maintained that she has no intention to profit from her story, and Louise continues to maintain her innocence," Mr Barrow said last night.

The Daily Mail drew criticism when it paid for an interview with Woodward's parents, Susan and Gary, conducted between the two verdicts in the criminal trial. The sum was reported to be pounds 40,000. Last month, the Press Complaints Commission cleared the newspaper of wrongdoing.

Last night, Louise Woodward conducted a series of TV interviews accompanied by her lawyer. She said: "The civil action was never going to allow me to re-argue my innocence in court, so really the only avenue that is open to me now is the scientific avenue. So I will look into what I can possibly do now to prove my innocence."