As part of ID’s Crimes That Changed Us series, the team investigates the tragic case of baby Matthew Eappen from Newton, Massachusetts, whose death in 1997 sent shockwaves through America.
Louise Woodward was the British nanny employed by the Eappen family to look after 8-month-old Matthew, and when he passed away, she was blamed for his murder.
On February 4, 1997, Matthew was rushed to a hospital in Boston with horrific injuries. He had a two-inch crack in his skull and a fractured arm, and his head, neck, and spinal cord were hemorrhaging.
The doctors quickly concluded that Matthew’s injuries had been the result of child abuse, and suspicion immediately fell on Woodward, the 18-year-old nanny who had been entrusted with his care.
Woodward was arrested and charged with assault; when Matthew died a few days later, her charges were upgraded to murder. She was vehement that she had done nothing wrong.
The trial that followed was watched closely by people worldwide, and it sparked a debate about childcare in America.
The parents of Matthew, Sunil and Deborah Eappen, both of whom were doctors, were accused of neglecting their son by putting him in the hands of an inexperienced teenager.
Woodward accused of Shaken Baby Syndrome
The trial also became known for publicizing the little-known Shaken Baby Syndrome, which was the name given to the act of shaking a baby so hard that it causes bleeding and swelling of the brain.
Prosecutors argued that Woodward had gotten angry with Matthew when he wouldn’t stop crying, so she had shaken him and thrown him to the floor.
The defense, which was paid for by the au pair agency that had supplied Woodward to the Eappens, argued that the injuries could have been caused weeks before Matthew’s death and before Woodward had arrived at the home.
As part of their strategy, the defense asked for the option of manslaughter to be removed from the jury’s considerations, which meant the jury could only opt for either murder or acquittal.
On October 30, 1997, the jury surprised many when they opted to convict Woodward of second-degree murder, and she was given a mandatory sentence of 15 years.
However, in the end, Woodward only served 279 days because Judge Hiller Zobel overruled the original decision a couple of weeks later at an appeals court. Zobel reduced the conviction to manslaughter, stating “Woodward had acted out of “confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense.”
Woodward was free to go, and she subsequently returned to the UK. She has since married and started her own family.
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The Nanny Trial: Crimes That Changed Us airs at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.