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The Trial of Louise Woodward (ITV) is a bit of a non-event, and a frustrating one. Woodward was a 19-year-old British au pair working in Boston, Massachusetts, who famously went on trial for the murder, by shaking, of a nine-month-old baby in her care, Matthew Eappen, in 1997. Beyond the fact that it’s the 25th anniversary of the trial, there seems to be no particular purpose in this documentary. There is nothing new, in short, to be learned. No fresh evidence, no new witnesses, no dramatic confessions by anyone.
After the long passage of time since this sensational case dominated the media on both sides of the Atlantic, and it certainly did, you might think that medicine and forensic science might be able to explain a bit more about what happened to Matthew. But no. The documentary is simply a retelling of the tale. Often, when I watch these sorts of shows I wonder whether they’re just an excuse to save money by recycling the acres of archive material from the contemporary news reports, including the court footage.
In any case, none of the principals involved in the original events, Woodward herself, or the Eappen family, presumably, consented to be interviewed, leaving the programme makers to revisit the lawyers who’d argued the case, the journalists who’d covered the story, and the various doctors who offered partially-conflicting expert evidence at the time. Here, the reporters reflect on how the apparently unemotional Woodward and mother of Matthew, Deborah Eappen, were abused in the media, just as was noted at the time. Some of the doctors now believe the retinal haemorrhage, the blunt force trauma and the fractured wrist of Matthew Eappen point in only one direction; the others are as clear as ever that there was, or is, no such thing as shaken baby syndrome. The undoubted “star”, if that’s not too distasteful a word, of the show is the shouty celebrity attorney Barry Scheck, who was quite the courtroom bully at the time, though he is a bit quieter these days.
I confess I only had a vague memory of the Woodward case, so I deliberately avoided googling the story before watching this retelling, meaning it at least had some element of suspense. I’d forgotten that Woodward had first been found guilty of murder, and then, in an extraordinary move, the judge unilaterally cut it to manslaughter, with a tariff equivalent to the time she had already spent in custody, and so she walked free. She’s living her own life now, and I’m still none the wiser as to whether she shook Matthew to death or not. I’m not sure we would have learned anything new from her either.