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. The jury convicted her of second degree murder which carried a sentence of 15-years to life. It’s also possible — based on recent evidence — that the baby did not die from being shaken, though it seems unlikely the issue will ever be proven beyond doubt.
Judge Zobel was not happy with the verdict. He reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter stating “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 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, but I had my own issues with the baby’s parents who I felt deserved a piece of the responsibility for the tragedy. As two employed doctors, they had more than enough money to hire an experienced, professional nursemaid for their baby. Instead, they went for the “cheap” solution. They hired a kid with no experience. The guilt did not belong exclusively to the girl they hired. They knew better.
Our legal system is designed to be flexible, to allow human considerations to occasionally trump legal ones. Often, it means no one is entirely satisfied with a trial’s outcome. The wild cards belong to the judges who have enormous discretionary powers — which they mostly don’t use. Judges can always set aside a jury verdict, but 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?”
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, although I think these days, we are closer to agreement. Times have changed and our opinions with it.
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 with which it’s hard to argue. 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.