Was Louise Woodward guilty?

The case of 19-year-old Louise Woodward, who was accused of involuntary manslaughter in 1997, has been revisited once again in a new Channel 4 documentary.

Her trial, which at the time sent shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, has polarised people once again, 25 years later.

Was Louise Woodward guilty?

Louise Woodward, who was working as an au pair of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen in Newton, Massachusetts, was initially found guilty of second-degree murder and given a life sentence.

But in the following days, her conviction was reduced to involuntary manslaughter and she walked free after serving just 279 days in prison.

Now, experts on both sides have once again revisited the case in the documentary called Killer Nanny: Did she do it?

At her trial, expert for the prosecution claimed that Matthew's injuries, including a cracked skull, showed symptoms consistent with Shaken baby syndrome (SBS), which has been called the "deadliest form of child abuse".

Experts were adamant that the triad of symptoms exhibited by Matthew — bleeding on the brain, swelling of the brain and bleeding in the eyes, showed deliberate abuse.

Martha Coakley, who was part of the prosecution team, explained: "The crux of our case was that Matthew died of a shaking and an impact."

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But Woodward has always maintained her innocence, and numerous experts over the years have come to her defence, questioning the science behind the diagnosis.

Dr Patrick Barnes, who at the time gave evidence claiming Matthew's injuries were caused by excessive and prolonged shaking, has now changed his mind.

He said: "I was very strong, that it had to be Shaken baby syndrome.

"I can't (now) give testimony that would convict Louise Woodward beyond a reasonable doubt. 

"I shouldn't have done that."

British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has been representing parents and carers accused of SBS since 1995, when he successfully appealed the case of a father on death row.

He said: “When it comes to shaken baby syndrome there is no science, it is latter-day voodoo.

“It’s based on a 1972 hypothesis by British neurologist Norman Guthkelch, and it was just a hypothesis, with no factual basis on which to prove it."

Defence lawyers cited the lack of bruises on the infant's arms, abdomen, chest or legs, which would have been there if someone had picked him up to shaken him with force.

During the trial, brain surgeon Joseph Medsen said the head injuries Matthew suffered could have been sustained days or even weeks before he was taken to hospital.

Pathologist Gerard Feigin, who carried out the autopsy, also found no evidence Matthew had been shaken, but according to the police report, Woodward "may have been a little rough" with Matthew after he had been "cranky, crying and fussy".

Although some have changed their minds over the years, others still maintain that Louise Woodward was guilty.

Prosecution lawyer Gerry Leone told the Sun: “There’s no question in my mind that Louise Woodward was responsible for killing Matthew.

“The defence took dissociated and sometimes random pieces of facts to create a story which would steer the evidence away from Louise Woodward.

“But in the end, 12 people who never met each other found that she was responsible, beyond reasonable doubt.”

What was Louise Woodward's prison sentence?

The shocking trial of the British au pair took place in October 1997, months after the tragic death of eight-month-old baby Matthew.

The then 19-year-old, from Elton, Cheshire, called an ambulance to the house, after the infant had stopped breathing.

He was rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital and put on a life support machine – but tragically died six days later from a brain haemorrhage.

Louise Woodward was initially arrested and charged with battery of a child, but when Matthew died, Woodward's charge was upgraded to first-degree murder.

On October 30, 1997, following 26 hours of deliberations, the jury found Woodward guilty of second-degree murder – which meant a mandatory life sentence with a minimum of 15 years in prison.

The young Brit, who collapsed in tears upon hearing the verdict, told her parents: “Please don’t let me spend the rest of my life in here for something I didn't do.”

It later emerged the jury had been split about the murder charge, and one person even admitted none of the members "thought she tried to murder him".

On November 4, Woodward's legal team filed post-conviction motions and her sentence was reduced to involuntary manslaughter.

Woodward was sentenced to 279 days in prison, which was the exact time she had already served, which meant she walked free.

This decision was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court, and Louise was able to return to the UK.

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