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.

Law School – Harvard University – Photo: B. Kraft

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.

Lady Justice on Old Bailey, London

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?”

After 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, 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.

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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

19 replies

  1. I was the corporate rep for the company I worked for at a couple of trials. I sat there with the company lawyers and watched it unfold each time. What I learned was that both sides know everything that the other side knows. There are no new facts revealed, and it comes down to a theatre presentation. Who can present their position better than the other and who is believed by the jury. It was a sobering realization for me. But, regardless, it is still a better system than most others have.


  2. I also remember this case, but for a different reason – cultural confusion.

    Firstly there were the different nuances between American and British English: for example the nanny, using a word that was perfectly harmless in Britain, said of the baby “I popped him on the bed…” and before she could get any further the prosecutor interrupted with “What – you DROPPED the baby on the bed!?!?” There then followed an exchange which, to the American jury, would have suggested that she was confused or was trying to change what she had just said in the witness box. I knew her goose was cooked right then, whether she was innocent or guilty.

    Secondly I saw footage that was shown on American TV of her ‘supporters’ back in her home ‘village’ back in Britain. I don’t know what the American TV company expected – maybe something out of ‘Miss Marple’ with gents in tweeds and ladies in print dresses and white gloves – but the ‘village’ of Elton in Cheshire is in an industrial area between Runcorn and Ellesmere Port, less than two miles from an oil refinery and a bottle factory. The people shown in the village pub looked urban and sounded Liverpudlian. I don’t think this had any effect on the trial itself, but it helped shaped public opinion against her.


    • The problem was, she was guilty. She wasn’t guilty of second degree murder, but she was guilty of being a kid with a task way bigger than she was able to handle. I thought during the trial that the parents should never have hired a kid with no training, no experience to take care of an infant every day. And they had more than enough money to hire a proper nanny. Instead, they hired a kid who did what kids do — she acted like a kid. I don’t think Americans were fooled so easily. Certainly my husband — who was the NBC reporter for the trial — wasn’t fooled. Nor was the judge.

      There should be some sensible rules about these kids that come over as au-pairs and get hired to take care of infants. No training, not even commonsense is required. At least she got sent home.


      • Hmmm… I wasn’t as convinced of her guilt, I have to say, from what I saw. I wouldn’t like to call it either way. But I’ll let that pass.


        • We will never know since there was no hard evidence and now, there’s some doubt about whether the child was shaken. But as long as these kids are available for very short money to do work for which they are not ready, there a lot too many ways things can go wrong.


  3. The trouble with capital punishment is that there are a lot of innocent people in jail. Some of those people are on death row.


  4. Capital punishment is a very slippery slope. I looked into the heart of darkness too many times during my 40 plus years as a TV News reporter. There are some horrible images forever frozen in my sense memory. I recall the many visits with relatives of murder victims. You can’t begin to imagine their anguish. Toss in the often cavalier attitude of many thugs I encountered across the years and you’ll understand why I feel capital punishment is still my choice in many cases.

    On the other hand, I’ve had close up conversation with former death row inmates who were wrongly convicted. The injustice is hard to swallow. I even moderated a symposium on the injustice of capital punishment — by invitation of clergy and former death row inmates.

    My parents raised their 3 sons with a clear sense of right and wrong.

    Not everyone is so fortunate.


  5. The Innocence Project began at a law school in this area — more and more they are finding that death penalty and life-in-prison convictions are being overturned “based on new evidence.” If for no other reason, I think the country needs to look at the death penalty very carefully. I do agree, though, that killing is wrong, whoever is the killer!


    • I think a life in prison is entirely terrible enough, but there are some people it’s hard not to believe deserve a quick and unpleasant demise. I never supported a death penalty, but it’s also hard to ignore some of the horrendous behavior we’ve seen over the years. Still, I’m glad we don’t have the death penalty here.


      • We have the death penalty here. There is an appeals process for death row cases that is so long and burdensome that there have been more natural deaths of death row prisoners than executions. My feeling is that that process is cruel and unusual punishment for both the prisoners and the victims! There has been some ballot-level discussion over the last few years of eliminating the death penalty, primarily for economic reasons, too!


  6. I remember that case and you make a good point about the parents. I also agree with you on the issue of the death penalty. I am glad that we no longer have it in this country.


    • I’m glad we don’t have it in Massachusetts. I think, in the end, most people are glad. There are people who surely deserve a bullet to their brain, but I don’t feel that I’m the one to be pulling that trigger.

      And as far as the case went, the parents deserved at least to be made to understand that they did bear more than a little of the responsibility for what happened. It was their child and they were doctors. They knew the risks.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t want to take sides on this one other than to say i’m also of the opinion if killing is wrong then so is legalising it.

    Have you seen Michael Moore’s doco – Where to invade next? It has some VERY interesting points about the US legal system and the one in Norway by contrast.


    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you, but not everyone does. There’s nothing to argue about here. We all know the reasons for yes and no — and we have our opinions based on what we believe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Garry believes some people deserve it, a point of view with which it’s hard to argue. It’s a matter of conscience.” I agree with you Marilyn, and I also see Garry’s point, however slightly more reckless in nature.., but it’s the “Cowboy Way.”

        These kinds of court decisions are hard on all involved, the parents, baby sitter and not the least, the judiciary. The great thing about our legal system is the fact that complex issues can be weighed and altered by humanity. The only negatives are financial and ethnic. Those, who benefit are more often those with the money for defense.., and are white.


%d bloggers like this: