Matthew Eappen would be around twenty-five now, had he lived. Nineteen-year-old nanny, Louise Woodward was accused and found guilty of shaking the eight-month-old baby in her care so hard it caused subdural hematoma and killed him.
Her trial, soon after the death of Princess Diana in 1987, was a media event—I don’t remember it, but watching footage Woodward’s pasty face was familiar from old newspaper stories.
Key players in the trial, such as the defence team, were interviewed. Many of the same high-profile names that had appeared during the O. J. Simpson murder case. Legal costs paid for by au pair companies that imported labour into New York’s prosperous boroughs. A service-sector also on trial, with the fear of further litigation from ‘shaken-baby syndrome’ a threat to their business model.
As were the middle-class parents of Eappen. They were both doctors. Trials had been filmed, but until this case streamed only to a local audience. The court-room commentator offered insight into how their closed world was viewed through a lense. Woodward, for example, she suggested was a nervous smiler. That might give the jurors, and those at home, the wrong impression. And she didn’t cry. That was a no-no. But crying at the wrong moment, or inappropriately, could also set jurors against you.
The mother of Matthew, being blonde and pretty, helped their case. But she also didn’t cry enough. And those stay-at-home moms with less than the twin incomes of two doctors were less sympathetic to her need to work, and might have wondered why she wasn’t a stay-at-home mother to their two young children.
The case itself was a closed-room, but not a mystery of the Agatha Christie variety. Louise Woodward the only suspect. She either shook the baby to death, causing internal bleeding behind the eyes, or she didn’t. Her defence team took the controversial decision to go for all or nothing. They would not, for example, go for a plea of manslaughter with all its legal complexities and moral nuisances. Woodward, if found guilty of murder, could expect a minimal of ten or twenty years on prison. Or if the sixteen jurors, whittled down to twelve to the dismay of the defence team, found her not guilty, she’d walk out of the courtroom, there and then.
The case rested on medical science. The prosecution had a text book open-and-shut case. Straight-backed white, medical men declaiming what happened. A pattern they recognised and could show, visually, using props.
The lead defence attorney asked an expert for the prosecution case to ‘imagine’ a different scenario than one he was trying to present. The expert refused, only to be rebuked the judge.
This is where the trail of Louise Woodward fails the viewer. We wouldn’t expect the parents of Matthew Eappen to take part in the re-construction of events, or even Louise Woodward, but we might expect the trail judge to take part and explain how he came to his extraordinary verdict (but twenty-fire years later, perhaps he’s dead).
Certainly, the prosecution team and its experts had little doubt of Woodward’s guilt of ‘shaken-baby syndrome’.
In contrast, her family, and supporters at her small Cheshire English village, portrayed her as a martyr falsely prosecuted for reasons they couldn’t quite fathom. Experts can’t be experts when they contradict a firm belief has become for many a way of life with a contemporary resonance from the election of the moron’s moron to global warming narratives.
The defence case rested on medical expertise, but with a different paradigm. Woodward had been in charge of the children. And she may have shaken Matthew, to help revive him after he had slipped into unconsciousness, but from bleeding to the brain that had happened before—when exactly, wasn’t important—therefore she had responded in a reasonable manner. The black swan argument. All swans are white, but there might be a black one. And our experts will show you pictures.
Twenty-five years later, a defence expert recanted and agreed such a scenario might have been possible. Another expert sneered. Louise Woodward to him remained a murderer, who had—largely—got away with it.
Certainly, if she didn’t have such an overpriced defence team, it would be difficult to believe that she wouldn’t still be in jail. Portrayed as an English rose, who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, worked for her in the media (it would have been interesting to compare and contrast the treatment of black or Latino nannies for similar crimes). The world has moved on and Matthew Eappen remains dead. Whodunnit? You’re the expert.