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Au pair receives life sentence

A 19-year-old au pair from Britain was given a mandatory life sentence for murder Friday after a grieving mother said her baby was "beaten by hands that were supposed to have been caring for him."

Louise Woodward, who won't be eligible for parole for 15 years, was sentenced after again denying that she shook or slammed 8-month-old Matthew Eappen to death in a fit of frustration. A jury found her guilty of second-degree murder late Thursday.

"I never hurt Matty and I don't know what happened to him," Woodward said in a trembling voice. "I'm not responsible for his death."

In Elton, England, where Woodward was reared, residents were numb, disbelieving and angry.

"I think it's written all over her face that she's innocent," said Pauline Mervik, one of scores of people sporting yellow ribbons to show their support of Woodward. "I think it's a travesty."

For weeks, British television covered the proceedings live. Newspapers followed the daily developments and tried to make sense of the U.S. legal system for an audience that found everything _ from the pretrial publicity to the rules of evidence to the judge's role _ alien and, in the end, unnerving.

Although British viewers eagerly soaked up the news, they remained suspicious of televised trials, which many experts said contributed to grandstanding by the lawyers, and even occasionally the judge. Their expressed fear was that this could have affected the jurors as well.

Equally troubling was how the circumstances of the case led to a charge of first-degree murder, which they attributed to a system that often involves elected prosecutors hungry to satisfy voters' anti-crime sentiments. Finally, they could not fathom how the jurors were precluded from considering a charge of manslaughter as part of their considerations once the case was handed to them. In the end, they did not believe that prosecutors had proved Woodward murdered Matthew.

From the beginning, British coverage was unabashedly sympathetic to Woodward. People here looked for prejudice everywhere and believed they found it. "Boston is a very anti-English town," a psychologist said on television Friday, "and has been ever since the Boston Tea Party."

Mark Stephens, a London lawyer, said: "There is serious, real, deep-seated concern that this had more to do with the Roman arena than it did to do with the rule of law. . . . The overriding feeling here is that this is soap opera justice."

Ken Davey, the vicar of Elton, spoke for the country when he described the trial's effect on the town of several thousand people. "It shattered it, and then it brought it back together," he said on the darkened lawn outside the Rigger Pub. "People were shocked and angry, and then there was a determination to work to help Louise."

At the Rigger Pub residents sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, underscoring their determination to stand by Woodward and redress what they see as an unjust verdict.

Residents gathered for prayers at St. John's Anglican Church to support Woodward's parents, carpenter Gary Woodward and his wife, Sue. Neighbors already had raised $22,600 to send them to America for the trial; now, they are starting a fund to fight the conviction and try to bring the au pair home.

In a television interview, Woodward's parents said they were astounded by the verdict.

"We were instructed not to show any reaction at all, whatever the verdict," Gary Woodward told Britain's Independent Television. "And that was very hard. I just wanted to run over to her, to comfort her, but what could I say?"

Sue Woodward said she hoped trials would never be televised in Britain, saying her daughter's proceedings were treated as "a piece of entertainment." She said the jurors made "a horrendous mistake."

The British government said that it would offer support to the family and that Louise Woodward would be visited regularly in her cell by British officials. "This is a tragic case for everyone concerned," said a Foreign Office spokesman.

London's Evening Standard was one of the few voices of dissent. It called the U.S. process "demonstratively open and fair."

"There is an unattractive tendency in this country .

.

. whenever a British citizen is found guilty in a foreign court of presuming there must be something wrong with the system of justice," the newspaper said in an editorial.

In Massachusetts, Superior Court Judge Hiller Zobel set a hearing for Tuesday to consider defense motions to set aside the verdict, order a new trial and reduce the charge.

Woodward was led out of the courtroom Friday and taken to the women's state prison in Framingham. Under a treaty agreement, she could someday be transferred to a British prison.

At the sentencing, Matthew's parents got their chance to speak out, with the mother, Deborah Eappen, reading a statement saying Woodward "didn't seem like a child abuser, or a monster or a murderer. We had no idea that she would harm our kids."

She had testified in the trial about the night of Feb. 4 when she checked her son into the hospital, saw bleeding behind his eyes and knew he had suffered a terrible injury. The baby died five days later of massive head injuries.

As she read her statement to the judge, she used the words of her son Brendan, now 3, to convey the pain of the baby's death.

"He has so many questions," she said. "How come baby Matthew died? What is death? Where is heaven? I want baby Matthew back."

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