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Archive for Wednesday, November 12, 1997

NANNY DECISION COULD BE DIFFERENT UNDER KANSAS LAW

November 12, 1997

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The judge's decision in the au pair case leaves complicated questions.

Much like the language of love, the language of law is difficult and sometimes impossible to explain.

Such is the case with Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted of killing 8-month-old Matthew Eappen.

On Monday, Judge Hiller Zobel reduced Woodward's second-degree murder conviction to manslaughter and sentenced her to 279 days; the amount of time she had already served in a Massachusetts jail. In essence, he altered the jury's verdict.

"Setting aside a jury verdict depends on the evidence," chief appellate defender Jessica Kunen said. "It's a judge's obligation to assure that a person doesn't get convicted of a crime if the state presents a weak case or a case that doesn't meet the charge."

That may have been the reasoning behind Judge Zobel's decision, but it may have had something to do with Massachusetts law. The law there is different from Kansas laws, and Kansas attorneys and judges are not subject to the same rules. For that reason it is impossible to know the circumstances and how the outcome would have been different here.

"We'll never know if (his decision) was a matter of sympathy and prejudice or a lack of evidence," Kunen said. "This isn't a science."

Even Woodward's fate remains unclear. Under Kansas law if the judge found her not guilty of second-degree murder, then the state could never retry her on that charge, Kunen said.

"The state could appeal the decision but it's nearly impossible to win," she said.

The law may be different in Massachusetts, Kunen said.

Judge Zobel's decision puts Woodward's defense team in a good position, Steven Zinn, deputy appellate defender said.

"They can fight for a reduction in the other charges," he said.

Either way, Woodward fares better than she would have with the jury's conviction.

"There's a real perception that justice has been done and that's a very positive perception for the public and how they're viewing it, and the defendant, too," he said.

Zinn points out that the reduction in charges doesn't mean that Woodward gets to go home free.

"It doesn't absolve her," he said.

Woodward, who was released from jail, isn't quite free. She must remain in Massachusetts until the appeal is heard.

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