Someone once said to Louise Woodward, in an attempt to put her mind at ease, that she would be a “one-minute-wonder” and no one would remember her in a year or so. That was in 1998, but six years later the front-page headlines that screamed ‘child killer’ are still fresh in the memory and Woodward continues to face intense scrutiny from the press.
‘Child killer’. Somehow it feels cruel to describe Woodward, a friendly, perky, chatty and, well, thoroughly normal and unspectacular 26-year-old, in this way. But for her it is a cross she will have to bear for the rest of her life.
“I think something like that is always with you,” she says, reflecting on her time in the US in an exclusive interview with Lawyer 2B. “I think about it all the time really, but not to the point where it totally dominates my life.”
Indeed Woodward has done more than pick up the pieces since her release. She has ploughed her way through a law degree, LPC and has just embarked on a training contract with northwest firm North Ainley Halliwell.
Despite the passing of time, the images of the chubby teen in the courtroom; the distraught Eappen family; and that picture continually wheeled out by every news organisation in the world of baby Matthew Eappen, who never lived to see his first birthday, have yet to fade away.
Her arrest and trial was one of the big stories of 1997 and continued to hit the headlines the following year. On her gap year in 1996, after her A-Levels, Woodward – unsure of what to do next – decided to work in Boston as an au pair and ended up at the Eappen household in November. What should have been a fun, coming-of-age experience for 18-year-old Woodward, who had barely travelled away from her home town of Elton in Cheshire, was to become a nightmare on 4 February when baby Matthew stopped breathing and died a week later of a brain haemorrhage. The autopsy of Matthew revealed a two-and-a-half-inch fracture to his skull and injuries said to be related to violent shaking. Woodward was charged and subsequently found guilty of second-degree murder. In the US, this carries a mandatory life sentence and a minimum of 15 years in jail. On appeal, Judge Hiller Zobel substituted the murder conviction to manslaughter with a 279-day jail sentence – amounting to time served.
Both the defence and prosecution appealed, with the defence arguing for the conviction to be completely quashed and the prosecution calling for the original verdict to be reinstated. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the manslaughter verdict and the reduced sentence imposed by Judge Zobel and in June 1998 Woodward was finally allowed to return home.
The case took centre-stage on the news agendas on both sides of the Atlantic. The coverage in the US was particularly vitriolic, even before the trial, as US contempt of court rules are virtually non-existent.
But remarkably, for someone who went through so much at such a tender age, Woodward seems to have come out on the other side relatively unscarred. She is eager – almost desperate – to leave her past behind her and is reluctant to answer questions about her time spent in the US, preferring instead to look beyond that ordeal. This is probably why she chose to be interviewed by Lawyer 2B, whose focus is more in touch with her future, rather than a national newspaper whose preoccupation would be her past rather than her rehabilitation and progress towards qualifying as a solicitor.
But it is her first-hand experience of the judicial system that fuelled her interest in becoming a lawyer. Before that she had not considered law and thought she would end up reading English or History.
“Getting into my own case really gave me an understanding of law,” she comments. When the prosecution appealed against her manslaughter sentence she had to stay in Boston for a further nine months and during that time she helped out her lawyers and did some paralegal work.
“I’ll admit that, initially, I was on a bit of a crusade to say I won’t let this happen to another person,” she says.
But time mellowed her and Woodward is now focused on a commercial rather than a criminal career in law. She is no longer concerned with preventing miscarriages of justice but is satisfied that being in the legal profession will ensure she is doing something that makes her a “functioning, effective member of society”.
Clearing her name, something she and her lawyers spoke of during the trial, and when she arrived back in England with her conviction still intact, seems to have taken a back seat and Woodward wants to break the connection between her name and anything to do with the case.
Since her trial scientific evidence has emerged questioning the safety of convictions for shaken-baby syndrome. In the UK the acquittal of Angela Cannings and the successful appeal by solicitor Sally Clark has led the Attorney-General to announce a review of all infant murders in the past 10 years. Doctors and legal experts now believe that as many as 15 per cent of the cases of shaken-baby syndrome that have come before the courts could have been misdiagnosed by experts as murder.
I imagined she would have been following these developments closely but the truth is quite the opposite.
Woodward says: “I take about as much interest as everybody else. I have been asked but I don’t really like to comment on it specifically. I don’t want to be associated with that.
“None of this is really new, it’s just confirmation of what we already knew.”
She spoke at a few events when she first returned to the UK on the issue of cameras in courts, which unsurprisingly, she is against. But for now Woodward is more preoccupied with her training contract which she started in January.
Her firm, North Ainley, is a small commercial firm in Oldham, Greater Manchester. On a side street near a bus station, coming off a slightly shabby high road and overlooking Saddleworth Moor, North Ainley seems an inauspicious but friendly place to start a career in law.
Woodward is one of three trainees and so far she’s enjoying the experience.
“Going to a big firm in Manchester or London never really appealed,” she says. “I didn’t want to get lost in the crowd. I didn’t want to be one of 30 trainees. In this kind of environment it’s more personal; you are groomed. It is better suited for me and I feel that I will learn better in this environment.”
Her first seat is in commercial but because of the firm’s size the work has been varied.
“I never know what I’m going to be up to. We do a lot of residential conveyancing and we have business disputes and commercial conveyancing. I’ve even had to do a bit of probate,” she says.
She has already met clients – not something that would have happened to a first-seater at one of the top City firms. Clients’ reaction when they realise who she is has been positive, she claims.
“The ones who know who I am say, ‘Good on you love, well done’.”
In fact the whole of Oldham appears to have embraced Woodward. When she started working at North Ainley cards poured into the office and she says that people wish her luck when she walks around the town.
Woodward is at the final stage of her journey towards being a lawyer, which started when she applied through clearing for the LLB law degree at London South Bank University, just a few months after she returned from the US.
Some told her to take time out but Woodward, a girl in a hurry to make up for lost time, was having none of it.
“My emphasis when I got back to England was always, ‘Well, I’m only 20 years old, I can’t let this defeat me, I can’t let my life end now’.”
There was, however, the English media, hungry for Woodward’s story, to contend with. Woodward never sold her story – although her parents did during her appeal to The Daily Mail, to recoup the huge amount of money spent during the case. What Woodward did do was give a free interview to BBC’s Panorama where she was quizzed by high-profile celebrity interviewer Martin Bashir.
But still the media fascination with Woodward showed no sign of abating. So, while most students had to struggle with the usual woes of having no money and surviving in grotty accommodation, Woodward, who describes herself as “quite a shy person”, had to endure paparazzi snapping her at inopportune moments throughout her university life. Most of the time, she reckons, it was not even in relation to a story but merely to update their picture files.
“I found it a bit ridiculous really. I thought how many times can you take a picture of somebody going to the shops,” she says. “I didn’t want to be noticed, I wanted to be like any other student and fall out of bed, run a brush through my hair and run to a lecture, not having to worry about what I look like.”
The South Bank students, she says, although curious at first got used to her and she soon became “just Louise”. She has fond memories of London life and recounts how she and her friends saved up during the week so they could take advantage of student offers on theatre tickets, get dressed up and go to the West End to take in a show. They would even treat themselves to a glass of champagne while there. “It’s probably why I found living in London expensive,” she laughs.
She refuses to reveal the class of degree she graduated with – “I’m not saying, that’s no one’s business,” she says with a smile. But whatever it was, it was good enough to get her a place on Manchester Metropolitan University’s LPC course.
But to study the LPC, Woodward first had to join the Law Society. As a convicted criminal, Woodward had always known there was a chance she might not be allowed to practise but had decided she wanted to get a law degree nonetheless and would cross that particular bridge when she came to it.
Two weeks before her LPC was due to start, Woodward was summoned to appear before a Law Society five-person panel who would decide her fate. The central issue was to determine whether she would bring the profession into disrepute. The whole process lasted about an hour-and-a-half. Woodward gave a presentation on why she would make a good solicitor and part of the procedure included someone saying why her application to the Law Society should be blocked.
But this was one case she won outright and two days later a letter telling her that she was deemed suitable to become a practising solicitor arrived on her doormat, leaving her free to start her LPC.
After completing the course she started informal discussions with firms in the North West, then sat an interview for and was accepted by North Ainley.
“I’m proud of myself and I think any law student should be that they’ve got through university, that they’ve done the LPC, that they’ve found a training contract,” says Woodward.
“Anyone should be pleased with that, but to have had the added pressures that I’ve had, I think I’ve done flipping well.”
This exclusive article appears in this month’s issue of Lawyer 2B