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Hate mail deepens parents' sorrow

A teenage au pair from England is accused of murdering their baby, and yet Deborah and Sunil Eappen feel as if they are on trial, too.

For all the sympathy they have gotten, the Eappens, both doctors, also have received hate mail and harassing phone calls accusing them of putting their careers ahead of their children by hiring help on the cheap.

The angry debate has crackled over radio talk shows and in a flood of calls to Court TV, which is broadcasting the trial live.

"It's almost chilling to gauge the reactions toward them," said Court TV programing chief Erik Sorenson, who was struck by the number of callers who condemned Mrs. Eappen for choosing to work instead of caring for her children full time.

"Apparently the parents didn't want a kid," one radio talk show caller said. "And now they don't have a kid."

Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old au pair, spent two days on the stand denying charges she ever shook, hit or slammed 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, who died of head injuries in February. The defense rested Monday and closing arguments begin today.

At the request of the defense, the Superior Court judge in the case ruled that the jury can only consider verdicts of first- or second-degree murder _ not a lesser charge of manslaughter. Prosecutors, fearing a jury would have less leeway to convict, immediately appealed, but a higher court judge upheld the ruling.

Much of Woodward's testimony dealt with the frustrations and demands of her job as an au pair. She came to the United States believing she would have time to see the country. Instead, she spent her days taking care of the Eappens' two children and doing the household chores, all for $115 a week. A nanny, a full-time professional, would be paid considerably more.

Prosecutors charge Woodward took out her frustrations on the baby.

Callers to the Eappens' house have told the couple that their boy's death was their own fault and that they got what they deserved for hiring "slave labor."

Matthew McCue, a family friend and spokesman for the Eappens, who are under a court gag order, said the couple are devastated, not only because they lost their son but because they feel the public and the media have turned against them for who they are _ successful doctors who live in the prosperous Boston suburb of Newton.

"This is a class issue," McCue said. "This is not just a case of kooks writing letters. There is an element of mainstream society that seems to be blaming them without the slightest knowledge of the facts."