Au pair must wait at least until next week for decision

 

The British au pair Louise Woodward, convicted of the murder of a baby in her care, will have to wait at least until Monday to find out her fate, court officials said yesterday.

Computer experts predicted internet chaos when the ruling by Judge Hiller Zobel, who is considering submissions from the defence and the prosecution, is posted on the World Wide Web.

Woodward was convicted by a jury last week of murdering eight-month-old Matthew Eappen and was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison. She would be eligible for parole in 15 years.

Under Massachusetts law, the judge has the power to reduce the charge to manslaughter, which gives him greater sentencing discretion. He can also order a new trial, overturn the verdict if he feels that justice was not served, or let the verdict stand.

It is the first time the Internet has been used as the primary source for releasing a judge's decision. Judge Zobel got the idea after talking to his son David, a graduate of the California Institute of Technology, about the most efficient way to release the ruling.

Technicians at the web site for Lawyers Weekly, one of 11 addresses where the decision will be posted, were last night working frantically to expand their capacity after being inundated with callers. Other sites will include the Boston Globe and those operated by the Associated Press.

The judge will write his decision on a court-issued laptop computer. Normally, a judgment would be handed in at court where the clerks are then obliged to make it available to interested parties for $1.50 per page.

The Lawyers Weekly site is at http://www.lawyersweekly.com

Woodward is serving the first days of her life sentence in Framingham Women's Jail near Boston, where she is following developments on television as calls for her to be freed continue in the US and Europe.

In her hometown of Elton, Cheshire, her grandparents, Jim and Joyce Woodward, said they were overwhelmed by the support shown for Louise in Britain, and particularly in Elton.

Mr Woodward (69) said: "I couldn't believe it when I walked into the community centre. It just astounded me. It must make Louise feel better."

Mrs Woodward said: "The whole country, the whole world, is trying to help her. We just can't thank everyone enough."

Reuters adds from Boston: Twenty-six per cent of Massachusetts residents believe Louise Woodward should be freed, and 42 per cent think her murder conviction should be reduced to manslaughter, according to a poll published yesterday.

The poll, conducted by the Boston Herald, found that only 5 per cent of those polled believe Woodward's second-degree murder conviction should stand. Twenty-three per cent said Judge Zobel should order a new trial and 4 per cent had no opinion. The poll of 306 state residents had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 per cent.

Woodward's lawyers, arguing that key prosecution evidence had been presented too late in the trial, have asked Judge Zobel to declare the 19-year-old innocent, order a new trial, or reduce the conviction to manslaughter.

If the charge is reduced to manslaughter, Woodward faces a maximum sentence of 20 years.