For those of you who follow “big trials,” in 1997 when Garry was working, there was a huge one in Boston. We were living in Boston and as engrossed as everyone else with the trial. Garry was covering the courtroom and had a good perch for hearing the whole story. We would discuss it at night over dinner and sometimes, long afterward.
It was a big media-circus in which a young British woman (Louise Woodward) had been nanny for a baby who died of what seemed surely to have been shaken baby syndrome (that finding has since been disputed). The jury convicted her of second degree murder and she was sentenced to 15 to life.
On reconsideration, Judge Zobel reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter, stating that “the circumstances in which the defendant acted were characterised by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense supporting a conviction for second-degree murder,” adding: “I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice” and just sent the girl back to England. Garry covered the story. It produced quite a storm of controversy.
I don’t think the judge (Hiller B. Zobel.) thought her innocent, just that nothing would be served by sending her to jail. I doubt the baby’s parents were happy with the verdict.
Our system is designed to make the law flexible by allowing human considerations to prevail — sometimes — over legal ones. Within the checks and balances of our government, we have even more checks and balances in the courtroom. That was the only time in my life I’ve ever seen a judge overturn a jury verdict. It isn’t done very often, for sure.
Woodward’s sentence was reduced to time served (279 days) and she was freed. Assistant District Attorney Gerald Leone then appealed the judge’s decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Woodward’s lawyers also asked the court to throw out her manslaughter conviction. The court affirmed the guilty verdict by a 7-0 vote.
In a 4-3 split decision, the court rejected the prosecution’s appeal against reduction of the conviction to involuntary manslaughter. On 16 June 1998. Woodward was returned to the United Kingdom. She studied law, then changed her mind and became a dance teacher (huh?). This is one of those stories that leaves one doing a lot of head-scratching.
The conviction had a side effect of defeating pending legislation in Massachusetts that would have restored capital punishment in the Commonwealth. I was personally just as glad. Garry was not, proving that you can agree on almost everything, but not necessarily on the death penalty. Legal killing is just a bit too much like playing God for my taste.
It’s a unique system of justice we have. Whatever else you might say about it (and there’s plenty to say), sometimes the magic works. Sometimes not so well. I worry, especially when we approve obviously illegal actions and in particular, vigilante justice.
I would prefer we convict and then commute or overturn a verdict than put an official seal of approval to the perception of “he deserved it” neo-frontier justice. It’s a matter of sending the right message, that it’s not okay to decide to be the law because we already have a system of law … even though it’s imperfect.
Law is a human institution. Until we are all perfect, our laws won’t be perfect either.
Cowboy justice has great crowd appeal. We love Wyatt Earp coming to town with guns blazing. It makes us feel safe, unless of course those guns are blazing at us or ours.
Being part of any minority tends to make one permanently paranoid. Our legal system hasn’t got a good track record of protecting the vulnerable members of our society. It’s nice — in my opinion — when we err on the side of mercy. You can’t undo a death, legal or otherwise. It’s supposed to be justice, not revenge. We have both a culture and tradition of vigilante justice that sometimes overrides our common sense and brains.
- Daily Prompt: What a Twist! (DailyPost.wordpress.com)
- Daily Prompt: Riding the rails at Busch Gardens (teepee12.com)
- George Zimmerman, Guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter (aphilosopherstake.com)