Massachusetts Supreme Court

The case of Massachusetts v Woodward (1997) involved some unique questions of law and evidence in the criminal justice system. The most important legal issue related to the circumstances when a trial judge could or could not reject a jury verdict and substitute one of his own. The most important evidential issue was the application of the “shaken baby syndrome. ”   These issues involved the participation of a number of parties from the collection of evidence to the judges sitting in the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

The following disucssion follows the role players by tracing the case from the first trial to its ultimate conclusion. In 1996, Louise Woodward of England, then 18 years old was hired by Sumil and Deborah Eappen of Masachussets to provide au pair services in respect of their two boys one of whom was Matthew, an 8 month old infant. On Feburary 4, 1997 Louise Woodward, claiming that she had found Matthew “unresponsive” telephoned 911. Approximately five days later Matthew would die as a result of “head injuries.

” Police maintained that Woodward had admitted being “a little rough with Matthew and arrested her. ” The role of the police is one of security management I that they function in the community as peace keepers. In order to keep the peace they are charged with the responsibility of detecting, preventing and investigating criminal conduct. As such they play pivotal roles in the prosecution of offenders. They question suspects and witnesses as well as collect physical evidence and are often key prosecution witnesses at criminal trials.

At Woodward’s jury trial two vastly different cases were presented to the jury whose job it was to listen to the evidence and decide whether or not the facts supported the charge of murder. The prosecution, charged with the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt argued that Woodward “shook Matthwe and slammed him on a hard surface. ”  The prosecution alleged that Louise Woodward’s conduct was brought on by two contributing factors. In the first place she had become increasing agitated with Matthew who would not stop crying and secondly she had become angry with the Mr. and Mrs. Eappen for attempting “to impose a curfew on her. ” 

These claims were substantiated by the presentaiton of witness testimony and expert witnesses. The prosecution called a total of eight doctors who had cared for Matthew and these doctors included a neurosurgeon, an opthalmologist, two pathologists, a radiologist and child abuse experts. Each of these witnesses testified that they were of the opinin that the head injuries sustained by Matthew had occurred as a direct result of hard shaking and the impact of his head coming into contact with a hard surface.

The defense team denied this claim arguing that had matthew sustained his head injuries in this manner there should have been injuries to his neck as well and since there weren’t any neck injuries the prosecution’s claim on that point had not been met. Woodward defense lawyers argued by adducing evidence from expert medical witnesses that the: “baby’s death could have resulted from an undetected head injury that occurred several weeks earlier. ”

The defense lawyers substantiated this claim by calling expert witnesses who tesstified that the infant had marks on his wrist consistent with old injuries that were sustained prior to the time that the Woodward commenced caring for him. The implication was that the Eappen’s may have caused the head injury since it was conceivable that they had caused the wrist injuries. Another expert witness called by the defense submitted that the brain hemorrhage causing Matthew’s death could have been a “re-bleed” from a clot which could have formed approximately” three weeks earlier following a hitherto undetected injury.

” This evidence is important to the defense council’s role in a criminal trial. The burden is on the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In any criminal trial any doubt arising on the evidence function to compromise the prosecution’s burden of proof. Therefore, by presenting evidence of old injuries the defense team was hoping to raise a reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s theory of the evidence.

The prosecution called additional witnesses calculated to shake Woodward’s credibility. They presented evidence that Woodward had previously used a false ID to gain access to a nightclub where proof of the age of 21 was required. Anticiapting that Woodward would testify that she was not angry with the Eappens at the time of Matthew’s fatal injuries the prosecution called witnesses to countet this position. Witnesses testified that Woodward was careless and irresponsible in her duties as au pair.

On some ocassions it was alleged, she remained awake late at night having spent time out with friends at various parties with the result that she had difficulties getting out on bed the following morning and getting the boys’ breakfast. It was also established via witnesses that shortly before Matthew’s fatal injuries the Eappen’s had warned Woodward that she would lose her job if she didn’t change her pattern of conduct. Prosecution witness Kathleen Sorabela told the jury that she had met and talked with Woodward while waiting to see a musical.

She alleged that Woodward told her that she was unhappy with her au pair position and that the Eappens were manipulating her time and that the children were pampered and spoiled. Ruhana Augustin, Woodward’s best friend was also called as a prosecution witness. According to Augustin’s testimony, Woodward had expressed dissatisfaction with the Eappens and their time restraints on her. She is alleged to have told Augustin that the baby’s constant crying agitated her. Augustin also testified that on the day that Matthew sustained the fatal injury, Woodward had admitted to her that she had shaken the baby, but only gently.