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Au pair free but is far from home

By Erica NoonanAssociated Press Published: November 11, 1997 12:00 AM

She is still tethered to Massachusetts.

The same judge who turned her loose barred her from leaving the state until a court says so, and the appeal of her manslaughter conviction could take up to two years. Her lawyers and friends, meanwhile, were mulling over a bid to have her declared innocent for killing 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.

For now, at least, Woodward is free to do what she wants for the first time in more than nine months.

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She is free "to walk to the end of the corner, to turn in the direction she wants to turn, to cross a street, to catch a bus, to buy a Coke, just to be a free person," said Elaine Whitfield Sharp, one of her defense attorneys.

Judge Hiller Zobel on Monday sentenced Woodward to the 279 days she served in prison since her arrest Feb. 5 and ordered her released to bring a "compassionate conclusion" to the case.

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The ruling angered Drs. Sunil and Deborah Eappen, who came under widespread criticism for entrusting Matthew and his brother, Brendan, now 3, to a $115-a-week au pair _ a young person who comes to the United States on a cultural exchange _ instead of a more expensive and highly trained nanny.

"What is Judge Zobel thinking? What does that say about justice? Does it say that you can kill a baby, and that your youth and inexperience with cranky babies counts for more than a child's life?" Mrs. Eappen said in today's editions of The Boston Globe.

Eappen said he wondered how the judge could find Woodward guilty of manslaughter, but set her free.

"What if Matthew had been his grandson?" Eappen asked. "Doesn't he get it? Someone killed Matthew. He acknowledges on the one hand that someone killed Matthew, and on the other hand he frees her. It makes no sense."

The televised trial grabbed the attention of millions in this country and in England, where Woodward lives. It generated sharp criticism of America's legal system and working parents, and questions about how to find safe, reliable child care.

For Woodward's supporters, the decisions to reduce her conviction from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter and order her release amounted to absolution.

"Justice has been done," said Patrick McGibbern, one of many who hugged and cheered amid champagne toasts at a pub in Woodward's hometown of Elton.

Zobel, who could have also affirmed the Oct. 30 jury verdict, ordered a new trial or declared Woodward innocent, said she had been "a little rough" with Matthew, causing his skull fracture. But Zobel said she had not acted with malice, an element required to reach the murder conviction.

Allowing such a verdict to stand would be a "miscarriage of justice," Zobel said.

"Although as a father and grandfather I particularly recognize and acknowledge the indescribable pain Matthew Eappen's death has caused his parents and grandparents, as a judge I am duty-bound to ignore it," Zobel wrote.

Woodward, who showed no emotion as the ruling was read, denied responsibility for Matthew's death, as she had during her three-week trial.

"I maintain what I said at my last sentencing: that I'm innocent," said Woodward, who had no comment as she left the courthouse with her parents for an undisclosed location.

Prosecutors were stunned by the ruling.

"In all my years of prosecuting cases this is the most bizarre series of events I have ever seen, perhaps the most bizarre series of events that anyone has ever seen in this courthouse," said Tom Reilly, the Middlesex County district attorney.

"I'm sickened by what happened," said Reilly, who pointed out the au pair had been behind bars just 17 days more than the 262 days that Matthew lived.

Prosecutors argued that Woodward deliberately shook the baby and slammed him against a hard surface on Feb. 4 because she hated her job and was frustrated by the baby's fussiness. He died five days later.

The defense contended that the baby actually was injured two to three weeks earlier.

Zobel said Woodward probably shook the baby out of frustration but her actions "were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice."

The murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence in prison with no chance at parole for 15 years. The manslaughter conviction carries a 20-year maximum sentence, but no minimum.

Manslaughter was an option that jurors weren't allowed to consider. Confident that Woodward would be acquitted, her lawyers successfully petitioned the judge to order jurors to consider only a murder conviction or acquittal.

Stephen Colwell, who was in Dallas when the ruling was handed down, did not hesitate when asked if he still felt Woodward caused the baby's death.

"Absolutely," he said. The defense's argument that Matthew was injured weeks before the day he was left alone with his au pair "just did not seem reasonable to us."

Vicky Woodward, who talked to her older sister on the phone from Elton, said her sister expected the judge to sentence her to 10 years in prison.

"She wants to say thank you to everybody," she said. "I just can't wait for her to come home."

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