Would I leave my children with Louise Woodward?

DAVID USBOURNE on days in a Boston court
Click to follow
The Independent Online
For some weeks now I have been immersed, as a front-line reporter, in the Louise Woodward trial. What a lot I - we - have learned from it. About ourselves. About its cast of characters. About the American - make that Massachusetts - justice system. And yet, so much remains mysterious. Such as what really happened to Matthew Eappen.

One of the main lessons I have learnt, personally, is how dangerous predictions can be. How many times I made them and was proven spectacularly wrong. But I was not alone.

My greatest sin was believing that I knew what the verdict would be. Like all my reporting colleagues, I had pre-cooked a "guilty" story just in case the verdict came on final deadline, but I almost did not bother. What possessed me to assume that the jury was sharing my conclusion: that Barry Scheck and his team had done well enough to show reasonable doubt, and that Louise would surely be freed?

Even the officers of the court were convinced that Woodward would be home for Hallowe'en. It is not widely known, for example, that on the second day of the jury's deliberations, bailiffs of the court went so far as to walk the four defence lawyers through the best exit route from the courthouse, by which Louise could most efficiently and discreetly be escorted to freedom once the "not guilty" verdict came down.

Judge Hiller Zobel was confident that Woodward would be acquitted. Of that I am sure. One source reported that when he left the courtroom briefly between hearing the word "guilty", and returning to dismiss the court, Zobel was in his chambers being physically sick. I have no idea if that is true, although I did ask him later. He did not answer, but I can believe it. Several of the court officers cried that night, I know.

Worst of all, Woodward also thought she knew what the jury would do. Already she was getting special treatment by the officers who believed in her innocence. Exceptionally, for example, she was being allowed to watch television - an episode of Seinfeld - in the holding cell upstairs, when the phone rang and someone announced: "The eagle has landed." A verdict was in. The verdict that turned out to be guilty.

For all of this, I blame Scheck. His arrogance, in hindsight, was breathtaking. Only when the jurors came in, their expressions betraying such gravity, did it even occur to Scheck and his colleagues that their performance - their parading of all those highly remunerated, ever-so-eminent medical experts with their explanations about old injuries and re-bleeds - might not have washed after all. To say they were surprised is not even close; Scheck looked as though a bomb had exploded in his insides.

Even in the following few days, I had to fight to restore my objectivity. A terrible temptation had to be resisted: to pander in my reporting to the sentiment of so many back in Britain that a wrong had been done. There were some amongst my colleagues here who, in the bars after work, had been voicing doubts about Woodward even before the verdict, especially about her testimony on the stand. Too accomplished, too rehearsed, just not kosher, they said. I began to listen more carefully.

Judge Zobel, I think, still believes in Woodward's innocence. To be sure, he offers a scenario for guilt, or a degree of guilt, in the 16-page document he issued this Monday before slashing her "murder two" conviction to one of manslaughter. But if he really believed it, he would not have taken that next, extraordinary, step: sentencing her to just the 279 days already served, and letting her go free.

My worst dilemma, however, is this: how legitimate, or how low is it, to question in print the veracity of the parents of the dead baby? The glare of doubt has been shone on his mother, Deborah Eappen, especially. Why? This is a woman who has lost a child, and we, the press, decided that it would be good sport to throw doubt on her. "God forbid," one friend said to me, "that I ever lose a child and find myself suddenly subjected to such bile."

Only a day earlier, I had reported that Mrs Eappen had made a videotape apparently coaxing Matthew's elder brother, Brendan, to reveal some dread secret about Woodward, maybe about how once she had hurt him. It seems now that Mrs Eappen did not chose to make the video, but was asked to do so by the police.

Will we ever be certain of what happened? Let us, for a moment anyway, entertain the Eappen doubters.

The defence suspicion, never aired in court on the grounds that the risk of angering the jury was simply too great, was this: that Brendan, the elder brother, who is large for his age, caused the initial injury by leaping on to Matty from some height and banging his head.

Does that explain the old wrist injury, too, that showed up only at autopsy? And did the parents know this all along, and cover up for their surviving son?

What I think, changes with each day. I am clear, after sitting in that court for almost four weeks, that the case presented by the prosecution was lousy. Scheck, for all his hubris, raised reasonable doubt. Had I been a juror, I would never have voted guilty. Woodward believes it when she says she is innocent. But this may be some kind of denial.

Do I really think that she did nothing to hurt Matthew, as she insists? I am not sure that I do. Would I leave my children in her care now? No, I would not. What do I think of the decision of Judge Zobel to let her go, without even giving her a year or two more? It strikes me as indecent, and insulting to the Eappens.

Just before the trial began, I interviewed the parents of Louise Woodward, Gary and Susan. Now I wonder about this, and it chills me: are they still, as they claimed then, 100 per cent certain that their daughter did nothing?

Or do they also now have just a sliver of doubt? If so, how ghastly that must be.