For those of you who follow “big trials,” there was a huge one in 1997 in Boston. Garry was working and covered the trial, along with a zillion other reporters from all over the country.

We became as engrossed by the story as everyone else. Garry was in the courtroom every day. Each night over dinner, we talked about the day’s testimony. Garry gave me his opinion on who was telling the truth and what it might mean.

So what happened? A young British woman — Louise Woodward — was nanny for a baby who died of what was apparently shaken baby syndrome, a finding which has since been disputed. The jury convicted her of second degree murder that carried a sentenced of 15 to life.

Judge Zobel was unhappy with the verdict and reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter. He stated “the circumstances in which the defendant acted were characterized 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.” His overturning of the jury verdict produced a storm of controversy.

I don’t think the Judge Zobel believed she was innocent, merely that justice would not be better served by sending her to jail. I doubt the baby’s parents agreed.

scales of justice

Our legal system is designed to be flexible, to allow human considerations to occasionally trump legal ones. Sometimes it means no one is entirely satisfied with a trial’s outcome. The wild cards are the judges who have enormous discretionary powers … which they mostly don’t use. Although judges can always set aside a jury verdict, it rarely happens in the real world. This is the only time I’ve seen it happen, other than in a movie or TV show. Zobel was an unusual judge.

Woodward’s sentence was reduced to time served (279 days) and she was freed. Assistant District Attorney Gerald Leone appealed the judge’s decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Woodward’s lawyers also appealed, asking the court to throw out her manslaughter conviction. The court affirmed the guilty verdict by a 7-0 vote. However, in a 4-3 split decision, the higher 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, changed her mind and became a dance teacher. A story that leaves me saying “huh?”

Side Effects

The conviction had an unanticipated side effect by causing the defeat of pending legislation in Massachusetts which would have restored capital punishment. I was glad. Garry not so much. It’s one of the few areas of the law on which we disagree.

The death penalty is not a liberal vs. conservative issue. I’m against it because I think if killing is wrong, making it legal doesn’t make it right. Garry believes some people deserve it, a point of view that’s hard to argue with (but I do anyway). We have agreed to disagree on this specific issue. It’s a matter of conscience.

The U.S. has a unique system of justice. Mostly, our magic works, sometimes not. Law is a human institution. It’s imperfect, but all things considered, it’s pretty good. I don’t know where you would find a better one.


Categories: Crime and Cops, Law, Legal Matters, Media

Tags: , , , , , , ,

29 replies

  1. I had forgotten about that case, but your post brought it back to mind. It is an interesting topic in the wake of Amanda Knox being found non guilty in Italy.


    • It was the most interesting court case Garry covered while I lived in New England. All that contradictory evidence and those parents, so eager to avoid responsibility. And Zobel was like a judge from a movie script. I have no opinion on Amanda Knox except that it does not appear that the prosecution had sufficient evidence for conviction. Whether she did it or not? I don’t know.

      In the nanny case, it was clear she did it. The issue was ultimately whether or not it was homicide.


  2. I think it must be everybody’s nightmare, being stuck in a legal system that can’t be perfect at all times. Often it’s just the victim that knows it all. I am against the death penalty for many reasons, but mainly because one wrongfully convicted, innocent dead person is one too many.


  3. I remember the case very well. I am British and the british media were all convinced the verdict was wrong etc. etc. I found it a very intransparent case, difficult to judge and was as interested as all the others to see what happened. I never followed it up about what happened to her after she was freed, interesting. I don’t do death penalties other. I think it was the Ruth Ellis execution in England that decided for me. Ruth Ellis was guilty of shooting her lover, no discussion, but a hanging was not justified. I find it strange in the States where one state has a law and another a different one. Our states in Switzerland also have different laws, but not for major items such as death penalties. The only time a death penalty would be decided in Switzerland is in war times.


    • Our complicated state-by-state legal differences are a hangover from the very early days when the U.S. was a loose confederation rather than one nation with a strong central government. Many things are now run by the central government, but many issues remain a state-by-state thing … until the Supreme Court takes a position. Then every state has to fall into line. It really IS complicated and this is a big country, which makes it even more convoluted.

      Judge Zobel’s decision to let her off with “time served” was highly controversial and not popular at the time. It has since been reconsidered and many people, including me (I was shocked out of my socks, at the time) have come around to believe there was enough guilt to go around, and the baby’s parents should certainly have been held accountable too.

      It was a memorable trial and I’m sure it won’t be the last of its kind.


  4. Nobody walks.
    We all pay in kind, somewhere, some time. Ignorance is no excuse.
    I once accidentally slammed a friends fingers in a car door.
    3 days later I cut those exact same two fingers in my own hand.
    It came back that fast.


    • Karma is. Louise Woodward was not exactly welcomed as a hero when she got home. She may not have served a life sentence in prison, but she is serving another kind of life sentence.


  5. Since she’s British it was also big news over here (and she was in the news again a couple of months ago as she’s just had a baby).
    I do agree with the judge in this case, that if she didn’t mean to kill he baby, she couldn’t be guilty of murder. She probably should have been tried for manslaughter from the start and ended up with 5 years or so (in my opinion).


  6. I was in high school when that case went to trial. I didn’t know much about it, just that it was a big deal, and it’s possible I watched some of it on CourtTV, but that memory is a bit hazy. I am also against the death penalty, for the simple reason that no death penalty means innocent lives are spared. I don’t know the statistics, but more than a dozen (many more than that, I think) people on death row were proven innocent when DNA testing came into play on some older cases. Those would have been innocent people being put to death by our government. No likey.


    • That’s one of my reasons. You can’t unring that bell. Execution is not something you can take back. But basically I’m against it because it seems to me that if it’s wrong to kill, you can’t pass a law that makes it right.


  7. That was both a maddening and terribly sad case all ’round.

    As for the conversation about capital punishment, I tend to believe that killing is killing and universally abhorrent, whether legally sanctioned as execution, in war, as premeditated murder, or on the street.

    But my opposition to capital punishment, to be fair, is far more for pragmatic reasons: it has been proven to cost far more to see the legal maneuverings involved and an execution through to its completion than to incarcerate the condemned for life. Do I think there are people who don’t deserve to live? Yeah, actually, I do. But do I think they’re worth the legal and practical costs that their American rights afford them, if convicted? Nope.

    I don’t have the slightest compunction about giving a person a life sentence without the remote possibility of parole, and making prison genuinely punitive and a privation. I’d be pretty draconian in my own design of prisons, to be honest, eliminating all privileges and putting prisoners to serious work, and they wouldn’t live in pretty or appealing spaces or have all kinds of things that I think of as entertainment available to them. Better to live a minimalist existence, serving the needs of law-abiding citizens as much as possible, than to be killed in retribution for your crimes (or, as is true in rare cases, wrongly). I don’t condone torture or maltreatment, but I have no problem with people who have been convicted of terrible [capital] crimes spending the rest of *their* lives in a controlled environment, making amends if and where possible through their own labors.

    Meanwhile, there are plenty of people like the aforementioned nanny wandering around free and probably not much the wiser or improved for having been told that what they did was unacceptable. The law is blinder than Lady Justice, but we’re all so imperfect it’s hard to know what’s a better way to live.


    • I’m basically where you are. My mother, screaming liberal that she was, thought we should take the bad guys behind the courthouse and just shoot them. It really IS a matter of individual conscience.


  8. “Make a deal, for chrissake!”


  9. I remember that case. It’s right there in my memory with the surrogate mother case with “Baby M’ in NJ, and the “test tube baby” Louise Brown. All different, but all shocking and groundbreaking at the time they occurred. Was Woodward’s case the one that got “shaken baby syndrome” recognized in our legal system?


    • Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist at Stanford University, was a key prosecution witness in the trial, but in 2011 he declared that he wouldn’t give the same testimony today. He said there’s been a revolution in the understanding of head injuries in the past decade, partly due to advances in MRI brain scanning technology: “We started realizing there were a number of medical conditions that can affect a baby’s brain and look like the findings that we used to attribute to shaken baby syndrome or child abuse” (Wikipedia)

      Shaken baby syndrome was already a popular COD in courtrooms by then … but since, the definition has been more defined and clarified and is not used with such a broad brush. Whatever happened, I don’t think there was any doubt that “the nanny done it.” Zobel never said she was innocent. He just lowered the sentence down from 2nd degree murder to involuntary manslaughter — which was probably fairer and better reflected what happened.

      What I hope it did was make parents more intelligent about their choice of caretakers for their infants. Woodward had NO qualifications to be a nanny. She just worked cheap. Both parents were working doctors who should and could have afforded better care. I always thought they should also have taken a good look in a mirror when it came to pointing fingers. They chose a ditzy kid … really, a teenager … to care for an infant FULL TIME. Woodward was qualified as a babysitter, not a full-time nanny. I would NEVER have entrusted my baby to her and they surely knew better.


      • times have not changed that much as NYC had a horrific case where a Nanny (50 yrs old) murdered 2 of the children in her care.
        I never followed the story after first hearing about it as I could not get my head around the thought of any of it.


        • The thing about the Boston nanny case was intent was never proved. Whatever happened, she was the only realistic candidate. That was kind of obvious but she was a stupid, ditzy kid who should never have been left in charge of an infant. Her physician parents should certainly have known that. They were too cheap to hire better help which I felt was important. There was a LOT of disagreement. It wasn’t exactly murder. It really was — as far as anyone could tell — involuntary manslaughter and Zobel made the right call.

          But unless you were there, you never really know the entire truth. It was a tragedy and regardless of what you did or didn’t do to the nanny. Nothing was going to bring that baby back.


%d bloggers like this: