Woodward lawyers demand review after `strangle' claim

THE LAWYERS who represented the British au pair Louise Woodward in her Boston murder trial are demanding that the medical evidence surrounding the death of baby Matthew Eappen in February 1997 be formally re-evaluated in the light of new claims that he may have been strangled.

The strangulation charge was made by two doctors on CBS television in the United States on Sunday night. Woodward, who had been caring for Matthew, was charged with violently shaking him and slamming his head. She was found guilty of manslaughter.

Her former defence team was pondering last night whether to request that the strangulation charges be formally heard in a new trial. Such a trial could, if the defence were successful, lead to the exoneration of Woodward and the overturning of her conviction.

"Frankly, the ball is in their court," said Martha Coakley, a Massachusetts District Attorney, who was one of the prosecutors in Woodward's trial. She said in a press conference that it was the responsibility of the lawyers to decide "if there was any merit or weight" to the doctors' assertions.

Woodward's lawyers said in a statement: "The next step is for both sides to test and verify the accuracy of this new medical information. We call upon DA Coakley and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ... to co-operate in jointly conducted scientific tests to verify this new information."

In the CBS show, 60 Minutes, Dr Floyd Gilles, chief of neuropathology at the Los Angeles Children's Hospital, said he had studied the medical evidence for six months. He concluded that somebody had pressed their thumbs against Matthew's neck and thus cut off the flow of blood to one side of his brain. He was backed up by another doctor from the hospital, Dr Marvin Nelson.

Dr Gilles contended that the swelling and brain trauma that would follow such a strangulation could take up to two days to develop in an infant. The implication is that if Matthew was attacked 48 hours before his admission to hospital, there are others who could have been his assailant aside from Woodward.

Ms Coakley said she had spoken to Matthew's parents, Sunil and Deborah Eappen. "They are thoroughly distressed, just at a time when this case should have been past." Ms Coakley dismissed Dr Floyd's findings as "preposterous. No strangulation theory can begin to explain Matthew's extensive brain damage, skull fracture, and severe retinal bleeding."