Woodward: First taste of freedom

Medical science will one day show conclusively that Matthew Eappen was the victim of an old head injury, says Louise Woodward. Rubbish, reply a group of more than 40 doctors. David Usborne listened to the latest controversy in the Boston nanny case.

A group of 50 paediatricians specialising in child abuse came forward yesterday to denounce the core scientific claims presented by Louise Woodward's defence lawyers in her murder trial as "courtroom diagnosis, not medical diagnosis".

The bluntly-worded statement, sent in the form of a letter to US media organisations came after Woodward declared in a statement that the "science underlying the case" would one day vindicate her.

During the trial, Barry Scheck, one of Woodward's lawyers, brought a parade of seemingly eminently qualified doctors to the stand to back up his contention that Matthew Eappen suffered a head injury and clot up to three weeks before 4 February and that some kind of mild shock caused a re-bleeding of the clot on that day.

In the letter yesterday, the doctors attacked that claim. "The hypothesis put forward by the defence that minor trauma caused a 're-bleed' of an earlier head injury can best be characterised as inaccurate, contrary to vast clinical experience, and unsupported by any published literature."

The letter, signed by doctors in Boston, Chicago, Maine, and 47 others from the United States, Canada and Australia, said: "The re-bleed theory in infants is a courtroom diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis, and the jury properly rejected it. Infants simply do not suffer massive head injury, show no significant symptoms for days, then suddenly collapse and die."

Dr Robert Reece, a director at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, was one of those who authored the letter. "We felt the evidence introduced was erroneous and was being accepted by the court as fact, when it isn't." Speaking of the reaction among paediatricians to the evidence he added: "There is major revulsion about this."

Woodward, whose fortunes were dramatically reversed on Monday when Judge Hiller Zobel cut her conviction in the killing of Matthew Eappen to one of manslaughter and freed her with time served, last night left the Boston airport hotel where she had been staying, affording the waiting media their first glimpse of her since her dramatic release. She boarded a ferry in Boston harbour, apparently on her way to the seclusion of a "safe" house pending her appeal. However, she later returned to the hotel.

President Bill Clinton's spokesman was drawn into the debate yesterday. Asked about the case, Mike McCurry told reporters that the President had "noted the judge's remarks" and believed that "the judge was in the best position to decide" on reducing the charge and setting a sentence.

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