IT was a court case that pitted England against the US, when teenage nanny Louise Woodward was accused of shaking eight-month-old Matthew Eappen to death.
Convicted of murder and jailed for life in 1997, she was freed 279 days later in a shock ruling when the judge downgraded the verdict to manslaughter.
Twenty-five years on and opinion is still divided about what happened on that fateful day as Louise, then 18, and from Elton, Cheshire, looked after two children at their US home near Boston, Massachusetts.
At her trial, expert prosecution witnesses claimed Matthew’s injuries, including a cracked skull, displayed the “triad” of symptoms consistent with him being violently shaken.
One expert, Dr Patrick Barnes, testified this was the “classic model” of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) and dismissed the defence’s argument that Matthew’s injuries had been sustained at an earlier date.
But in a new Channel 4 documentary, The Killer Nanny: Did She Do It?, the medic reveals he has since changed his mind — and says the science behind the diagnosis of SBS is flawed.
In the three-parter, which starts tomorrow, he says: “I was very strong, that it had to be shaken baby syndrome. I can’t (now) give testimony that would convict Louise Woodward beyond a reasonable doubt. I shouldn’t have done that.”
But prosecution lawyer Gerry Leone tells the Sun: “There’s no question in my mind that Louise Woodward was responsible for killing Matthew.
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“The defence took dissociated and sometimes random pieces of facts to create a story which would steer the evidence away from Louise Woodward.
“But in the end, 12 people who never met each other found that she was responsible, beyond reasonable doubt.”
The argument around shaken baby syndrome has raged on both sides of the Atlantic ever since.
Some experts are still adamant that the triad of symptoms exhibited by Matthew — bleeding on the brain, swelling of the brain and bleeding in the eyes — point to deliberate abuse.
But critics have argued that these symptoms could have many other causes, including accidental falls and rare genetic conditions.
British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has been representing parents and carers accused of SBS since 1995, when he successfully appealed the case of a father on death row.
He tells The Sun: “When it comes to shaken baby syndrome there is no science, it is latter-day voodoo.
“It’s based on a 1972 hypothesis by British neurologist Norman Guthkelch, and it was just a hypothesis, with no factual basis on which to prove it.
“Before he died two years ago, he said how horrified he was that his theory had been accepted as fact and sent so many people to prison.”
Clive says bleeds on the brain can be caused by very little trauma — and that the triad theory is “stupid”.
He explains: “If you’re a little infant or a small child of 2ft 6in and you fall off a 3ft height, your head is going to hit the floor at about 15mph, faster than you and I can sprint.
“If you sprint into a wall, you could do serious damage, so to say an infant can’t sustain a fatal head injury from that sort of fall is self-evidently false.”
There’s no question in my mind Louise Woodward was responsible for killing Matthew. 12 people found that she was responsible, beyond reasonable doubt.
Louise was just 18 when she travelled to the US on a gap year, eventually working for Debbie and Sunil Eappen, both doctors, as nanny to Brendan, three, and baby Matthew.
Louise loved the job and apparently doted on the children.
“They were adorable,” she says in a clip from a 2003 interview on TV’s Panorama: “Brendan was very bright and chatty, you could have a conversation with him. And Mattie was a sweet baby, very smiley and playful.”
It was on the afternoon of February 4, 1997, that Matthew was rushed to hospital after a panic-stricken Louise rang for an ambulance, saying he was not breathing.
As he lay in a coma, Louise was arrested on suspicion of child abuse. When he died five days later the charges were upped to murder.
Lead detective Bill Byrne told the documentary Louise had admitted to being “frustrated” because Matthew was crying, and claims she said, “Maybe I was a little rough with him”.
British-born lawyer Elaine Whitfield Sharp took on Louise’s case after concluding she was too small, with “tiny hands”, to do so much damage to a 22lb “butterball of a baby”.
She says: “For this little person to have shaken this big baby with such violence, it didn’t make any sense.” In the run-up to the trial, in October 1997, a huge swell of support in the UK was led by the residents of her home town.
But in the US she was branded a murderer. Prosecutors painted her as an irresponsible teen who liked to party and had a grudge against the Eappens after they insisted on a curfew.
The court heard Matthew had a 2.5in crack in his skull and that his head had been “violently shaken for a prolonged period”.
Defence lawyers cited the lack of bruises on his arms, abdomen, chest or legs, which would have been there if someone had picked him up to shaken him with force.
Expert witnesses also testified that the lack of fresh bleeding on the brain indicated the skull fracture was an older injury.
I was very strong, that it had to be shaken baby syndrome. I can’t (now) give testimony that would convict Louise Woodward beyond a reasonable doubt.
Louise told paramedics at the scene that Matthew had been lethargic, had not been eating and had been screaming a lot — all symptoms of a previous injury.
Neurosurgeon Dr Ronald Uscinski, who gave evidence for the defence, said: “What I saw was that the injury was not a fresh injury.
“No matter what they said, it could not have happened on that day. We gave them science and the prosecution gave them hysteria.”
Dr Barnes, who now regrets dismissing the theory of an older injury at Louise’s trial, believes that rigid training around SBS is at fault for previous mistakes.
He says: “My teachers had taught me that shaken baby syndrome produces characteristic findings, the so-called triad. Because we were biased by the triad representing shaken baby syndrome, we would not believe the (other) story.”
Defence barrister Barry Sheck tells the documentary the trial was a “huge witch-hunt”, adding: “They locked her up on the basis of false assumptions about violent shaking and what you need to cause a skull fracture. It’s crazy.”
Prosecutor Gerry Leone dismisses Dr Barnes’ U-turn as irrelevant to the case.
He tells The Sun: “The evidence was clear and the jury found beyond reasonable doubt that not only did she engage in a violent shaking of Matthew — that caused devastating injuries to his eye, brain and other parts of his body — but that he was violently slammed against a hard object, causing a 2.5in fracture to the back of his skull.”
At the trial, Louise’s own seeming aloofness when cross-examined, and the fact that she laughed when questioned about Matthew’s death, turned many against her.
She later explained: “I was told not to show any emotion, because the prosecutors were trying to paint me as a volatile person. I wasn’t being aloof, I was just frightened. I was scared and inhibited.”
She was found guilty and sentenced to life.
But in a shock move days later the judge overturned the verdict and sentenced her to 279 days, the stretch she had already served awaiting the trial.
I never ever forget, in all this, that a little boy died. I genuinely feel really sorry about that.
Gerry insists the judge’s leniency was “an affront to justice”. “He can make whatever decision he wants under the law in that regard,” he says.
“But I tried a father accused of killing a baby in a similar case a year to the day before this one, and he is still in jail.
“From my perspective, that is contradictory to releasing Louise Woodward for doing less time in jail then Matthew Eappen lived on this planet.”
The Eappens went on to have two more children.
After returning to the UK, Louise, now 43, studied law and went on to marry and have children of her own.
In her only TV interview since, she said: “I never ever forget, in all this, that a little boy died. I genuinely feel really sorry about that.
“The whole thing has just been such a trauma and I certainly haven’t forgotten about him.”
- The Killer Nanny: Did She Do it? starts at 9pm on Channel 4 tomorrow.
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