The tide turns

Print edition : December 27, 1997

The appeals in the Matthew Eappen case are to come up for hearing in March. Meanwhile, Drs. Sunil and Deborah Eappen are gaining support from medical professionals and members of the public.

IT has taken outrage to bring the hitherto silent sympathisers of baby Matthew Eappen and his family out into the open. Until Judge Hiller Zobel reduced the sentence of Louise Woodward, the British au pair convicted of manslaughter in the baby Matthew Eappen case (Frontline, November 28 and December 12, 1997), to "time served" - 279 days - the world had mostly been treated to the spectacle of a vociferous campaign in Britain and the U.S. to free Louise Woodward. But even as Judge Zobel delivered the verdict, there was a tide of public sympathy for the Eappens. In a show of extraordinary support, 50 paediatricians from across the U.S. issued a public statement supporting the prosecution's medical case and debunking the defence team's theory, which they described as "inaccurate, contrary to vast clinical experience and unsupported by any published literature."

Every subsequent survey of medical professionals has revealed strong support for the prosecution's theory that Matthew was "battered and shaken to death" by Louise Woodward. As the paediatricians put it, infants simply do not suffer massive head injury, show no significant symptoms for days, then suddenly collapse and die. (The two or three paid medical witnesses who testified for the defence failed to cite a single case to support their theory that Matthew may have died of a previous injury.) Judge Zobel's action in reducing the sentence has come in for criticism from various quarters in the U.S., including newspaper editorials. Since the delivery of the verdict, Internet sites in support of the Eappens have sprung up.

In a recent development, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judge Justice Ruth Abrams has ruled that appeals from both the prosecution and the defence would be heard on an expedited schedule by the full panel of the Supreme Judicial Court in March, bypassing the normal appeals processes. While she did not return Louise Woodward to prison, she stipulated that the convicted au pair, whose passport has been confiscated, must not leave Massachusetts.

Matthew's father, Dr. Sunil Eappen, spoke to this writer about some of the extraordinary aspects of the case. Responding to Justice Abrams' ruling, he observed: "I think it is surprising that Justice Abrams sent it to the entire Supreme Judicial Court, instead of the appellate court as is normal practice." "It means that they are looking at this issue seriously," Sunil said, adding: "At the least, they are questioning Zobel's judgment in various aspects of the case."

Drs. Sunil and Deborah Eappen, parents of Matthew Eappen, in court on October 31, the day British au pair Louise Woodward was sentenced.-STEVEN SENNE/ AP/ POOL

au pair

According to law enforcement officials, medical experts and prosecutors who routinely deal with child battery cases, there is nothing unique about this case except the publicity it has generated - and the sympathy for Louise Woodward rather than for Matthew. The British reaction appears to have been largely driven by nationalistic anti-Americanism, rather than by the facts of the case - in much the same way that coverage about the two British nurses convicted of murder in Saudi Arabia had focussed on the supposed "barbarity" of the Saudi legal system. According to some commentators in the U.K. and the U.S., had Louise Woodward been black she would have received no public sympathy.

WHILE Matthew's Indian descent has not been an overt factor, his father's ethnic background has cropped up many times. Alan Dershowitz, the publicity-hungry lawyer who has appeared for many celebrities, including O.J. Simpson and Claus Von Bulow, admitted on British television that the au pair being British and baby's father being "different" were factors in the case. Larry King, the U.S. talk-show host, asked Dr. Sunil Eappen if he got to go "home" often, to which a slightly baffled Sunil asked whether he meant Chicago or India (Larry King had meant India.)

The fact that race and nationality issues are being raised in relation to this case has come as a surprise to Sunil. "I did not see race as an issue with the case; at least I did not see anything over here in the media." According to him, the issue of race has had no impact on his family. "Since Zobel's decision," he notes, "I have had a number of people of minority origin indicate to me that they felt strongly that race and nationality played a role in his opinion. They feel strongly that if the defendant had been black or from a South American country, this would have never happened." In Sunil's view, the press coverage would have been much less if that were the case. "Just a week prior to this case, there was a Nicaraguan or Honduran man convicted of second-degree murder in the same court house for a similar assault on a baby, and not too many people heard about that."

JIM BOURG/ REUTERS

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judge Justice Ruth Abrams.

Indeed, in 1994, an Indian babysitter was imprisoned for two years in Boston for involuntary manslaughter of a six-month-old baby whose parents were also Indian professionals. In Texas, where such matters are dealt with rather more severely, a black girl who was only 11 when she was convicted is serving a 25-year prison sentence for battering to death a toddler in her care. Even in liberal Massachusetts, there is a guideline of three to five years for manslaughter, which, the prosecution argues, was ignored by Judge Zobel. Sunil is, however, still hopeful: "I have fortunately been relatively immune personally from race-related prejudices in my life, and since I view the world in a relatively colour- or race-blinded fashion, I would like to think that people like judges, legislators, policemen, would view the world the same way... I know it is not true always but I have no reason to believe that race played any role in Zobel's decision."

PERHAPS the most significant point that will be considered when the appeal comes up for hearing is that the defence team's scientific claims were disproved by an overwhelming majority of medical professionals within days of Louise Woodward being freed. Asked if it would have helped to have had such support earlier, Sunil feels "it would have helped inasmuch as Zobel relied on the media for his decision." In his view, Judge Zobel should "not have treated himself differently than the jurors; he should have sequestered himself from the news coverage." "It was arrogant of him," Dr. Sunil Eappen remarks, "to suggest that the jurors should not be exposed to the media because they may become influenced by what they see, but that he himself would somehow be immune because he could raise himself above media opinion."

During the trial, Matthew's great grandmother in India expressed disappointment over the lack of support from the Indian community, compared to the "blind" support given by the British to the convicted au pair. However, that too seems to be turning around. "I have been impressed that people in India and Indians in Britain have taken such an interest in my family and this story," says Sunil. "It tells me that Indians continue to care about me as an Indian, and this has reminded me of its importance to me as well as to all first-generation immigrants from India... My wife and I are very conscious of my Indian heritage and the wonderful aspects of it that are inherently a part of me as a result of my upbringing." He adds: "It has played a role in the way we view our world, the way we will shape my son Brendan's world, and I don't think that Matthew's death has changed this."

JIM BOURG/ REUTERS

Woodward, with her attorney Andrew Good (right), awaits Judge Hiller Zobel's decision on whether she may travel to California for Christmas. Judge Zobel refused permission for the trip.

Like many other Indian families settled in the U.S., the Eappens periodically visit India and reflect the paradoxes of identity of our age. Sunil considers himself an American of Indian descent, the same way that a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, Ireland, or Denmark may consider himself American. "When I go to India, I feel even more American, because I really feel like an outsider to the cultures, lifestyles and customs there." Nevertheless, "the outside world views me as being more Indian because of my skin colour."

British newspapers have reported that Louise Woodward will not be home for Christmas as her lawyers have decided against trying to get her special permission. Meanwhile, the Eappens face the bleak prospect of getting through the festive season knowing that Matthew will never be home for Christmas.

The Matthew Eappen Fund has been set up in his memory at the Children's Hospital in Boston, the child health centre where Matthew was treated and where he died. A colleague of the Eappens has organised for caterpillar pins, modelled after Matthew's favourite toy, to be sent to anyone who writes in expressing their support and requests one. "Many friends and family members who attended the trial were wearing them," said Dr. Sunil Eappen, "and now anyone wanting to make a statement about child abuse is wearing them."

For now, the Eappens are awaiting the appeal to see if the court will restore a prison sentence to Louise Woodward. "I hope that the public won't forget Matthew's life and death," Dr. Sunil Eappen says, "and I hope they will continue to support the educational fund that has been set up to educate health care providers, court officers and the public about child abuse. I hope they continue to write us letters sharing their similar experiences."

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