The Boston Phoenix
October 30 - November 6, 1997

[Don't Quote Me]

London calling

The Louise Woodward trial has attracted a swarm of British journalists to Cambridge. They didn't find quite what they came looking for

by Dan Kennedy

Ten minutes to airtime, and Jonathan Hunt is antsy. Dapper in pinstripes, swept-back hair, and oval, wire-rimmed glasses, he runs through his opening over and over, shifting his weight back and forth like a schoolboy who has to take a leak.

It's Monday at 4:20 p.m. -- 9:20 p.m. in Britain -- and almost time for the latest live update on the Louise Woodward trial. Hunt and his low-key partner, Jeremy Thompson, who stubs out a cigarette and takes his position with just a few moments to go, are covering the trial for Sky News, Rupert Murdoch's British 24-hour news channel.

"This is Bob Costas and Dick Newberg," Hunt quips nervously. "Is it Dick Newberg?" No one answers. "We're at the World Series. So what do you think of those Marlins?"

Hunt and Thompson are standing on the sidewalk behind the Middlesex Superior Courthouse. Earlier on this day, Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair charged with murdering the eight-month-old baby in her care, easily withstood Assistant District Attorney Gerard Leone's cross-examination.

Woodward appeared to be all but assured of acquittal when Judge Hiller Zobel refused Leone's desperate plea to allow jurors the option of an involuntary-manslaughter conviction. It's murder or nothing, and it seemed clear to just about everyone -- including the two dozen or so British journalists on hand to cover the sensational case -- that the jury was unlikely to conclude that this mild, soft-spoken young woman deliberately killed Matthew Eappen. (At press time, the jury was still deliberating Woodward's fate.)

The lights are turned on at precisely 4:30, and Hunt begins, introducing video highlights from the day's proceedings. "Mr. Leone first sought to portray the 19-year-old as a frequent liar," he intones, but adds that the prosecutor made "no real headway" on the "crucial question" of whether Woodward's actions led to Matthew's death.

Hunt then turns to Thompson, who had spoken with members of the Woodward family and had found them to be in optimistic spirits. "They must see the prosecution's case drifting away from them," Thompson says.

And that, as the Brits might put it, has been a most unexpected development.

When the British press arrived in Cambridge en masse a month ago, it was with a sense that one of their own was about to get railroaded. Mountains of pretrial publicity portrayed Woodward as an immature party girl who, frustrated over long hours with two young children, had shaken and/or thrown Matthew with "extreme atrocity or cruelty," as the charge of unpremeditated first-degree murder puts it. (In Britain, the tightly regulated press cannot report on the details of a criminal case before trial.)

How, the Brits wondered, could Woodward ever get a fair hearing when the atmosphere had been so poisoned against her?

Indeed, as the trial got under way, the British press was indignant at the poor treatment being accorded one of their own. 3-HOUR TRUTH TEST PROVES BRIT DID NOT KILL BABY; BUT JURY WON'T HEAR VITAL EVIDENCE blared the Mirror, one of London's more lurid tabloids, on October 6, referring to Judge Zobel's refusal to admit the results of a lie-detector test administered by the defense. The next day, the Mirror described Zobel's routine ruling that Woodward's mother, as a potential witness, could not attend the trial or visit her daughter in jail as a NANNY TRIAL SHOCK.

Yet as the trial wore on and it became clear that the defense had put together a substantial case, attitudes began to change. British reporters realized that a justice system held up to ridicule in the aftermath of O.J. Simpson's acquittal perhaps wasn't so bad after all. Thompson, for one, expresses amazement at Zobel's giving Woodward the choice of whether to exclude the possibility of a manslaughter conviction. "That's extraordinary to us," he says, lighting up another cigarette. "You couldn't ask for evidence of a fairer trial."

For the British media, as for the American media, the Woodward trial has had it all. A tragic, heartbreaking death. A young murder defendant who comes across as anything but the epitome of evil. Agonizing questions about the responsibilities of working parents who place their children in the care of virtual strangers. And, for the Brits, there is also this: Louise Woodward is the first British citizen whose trial has been carried on live TV. Sky and the BBC are broadcasting live feeds back to Britain. Another network, ITN, is beaming back regular updates.

David Usborne took on the celebrity aspect of the case -- or "Louisemania," as he dubbed it -- in an October 20 piece for the Independent, one of London's quality papers. "Louise Woodward is, I think, on the threshold of the big time. And we're talking books, Hollywood, Broadway, the lot. Of course, we might also be talking prison, but we have to leave that to the jury," Usborne began, adding: "Hell, the way Louise is going, I might even be ringing Kato Kaelin before long to get the number of his booking agent."

In person, Usborne -- middle-aged, rather powerfully built, in jeans, a white shirt, and tie -- comes across as hale and charming. ("A babe," giggled a female member of the press corps when I asked someone to point Usborne out.)

Like a number of other British reporters, Usborne says live television coverage has changed attitudes toward the American justice system -- from a "knee-jerk" reaction that Woodward couldn't possibly receive a fair trial to a realization that "our system's actually not that much different."

"People saw the O.J. case and were appalled," Usborne says. "But I don't think there's anybody at home now who thinks she's getting an unfair trial." He adds that, last Sunday, the Independent went so far as to cite the Woodward trial as evidence that British trials should be on television, too. Not that Usborne thinks that's going to happen anytime soon.

With television and the national dailies providing Britons with a macro view of the Woodward trial, it's up to Dominic Herbert, a slight 23-year-old in an ill-fitting dark blue suit, to go micro. A reporter for the Woodwards' hometown paper, the 35,000-circulation Chester Evening Leader, Herbert graduated from university, in Birmingham, just 15 months ago.

He admits, smiling, that he left behind "a few jealous reporters" when he won the plum assignment of covering the trial for the Leader. Unlike the national reporters, who have rooms in Boston-area hotels, Herbert is staying in Quincy with a British acquaintance of someone at the paper. Foreign correspondence on a budget, in other words.

Herbert would like to come off as tough and grizzled, but he can't hide his wide-eyed fascination with the proceedings, or his sympathies toward Louise Woodward and her family. He volunteers, with evident pride, that a hometown committee raised some £15,000 to send the Woodwards to the US for their daughter's trial. During a break in Leone's cross-examination of Woodward, I ask Herbert how he thinks she's holding up. "I think she's doing fine," he responds, obviously pleased at the prospect that she soon could be jetting home with her mum and dad.

Britain's notorious tabloid press has been surprisingly low-key. Waiting around the lobby on Monday morning, I ask Mark Jordan, a reporter for the ITN network, if any tabloid reporters are on hand. "No," he replies, laughing. "They normally come at 10-to because they're hung over. You'll know them when you see them -- they're crinkly, scruffy."

Perhaps they were traveling incognito. I did eventually have a chance to sit next to Bill Coles, of Murdoch's Sun, the paper with the topless "Page 3 Lovely." Coles was wearing stained chinos and ugly green-white-and-black socks, but I'm not sure if that qualifies as scruffy. In any event, he had just flown in from New York and wasn't all that up on what was going on -- or particularly keen to talk about it. When I ask him why the Sun didn't put Woodward's dramatic testimony on page one last Friday, he replies, "You'd have to ask the editor that. It's the editor's decision. It's the same as any newspaper." His tone of voice suggests that it would not be wise to ask further questions.

In fact, huge as the Woodward story is, it does not quite constitute the perfect British-tabloid story -- especially for the Sun, whose tastes run more to the travails of "Randy" Steve Linley, "run over by a truckload of poachers -- as he lay bonking at midnight in a field of stubble."

Tunku Varadarajan, New York bureau chief for the venerable Times (another Murdoch property, ironically), thinks he knows why the Woodward case has fallen somewhat short of tabloid heaven. "She's an unattractive, provincial girl," he explains, suggesting that if she looked more like a Page 3 Lovely, the tabloids would be more interested.

Varadarajan, an Oxford-educated-lawyer-turned-reporter, may be the most dauntingly credentialed journalist here. As something of an outsider (he grew up in India), he brings a dispassionate perspective to the press coverage of the case.

Early on, he says, the tabloid press printed "nonsense" about the inability of a British citizen to receive a fair trial abroad, especially in an "Irish" city such as Boston.

Those attitudes, though, he says were changed by obvious evidence of fairness -- as well as by lingering doubts as to what Louise Woodward may or may not have done. "It was difficult to get hysterical about it, because there did seem to be some prima facie evidence that something had happened," Varadarajan says. After all, the quest for legal advantage may not have been the only reason that Woodward wanted involuntary manslaughter excluded from the jury's list of options.

Yet if British attitudes about the US legal system have changed for the better, doubts remain. There is, for instance, the matter of politics, and what role that may have played in District Attorney Thomas Reilly's decision to bring such onerous charges against Woodward. The British reporters I talked with were appalled that prosecutors are elected in the US, and even more appalled that Reilly's campaign for attorney general may have affected his handling of Woodward's case. Then there are such matters as how Woodward could ever have afforded her dream-team defense if the bill weren't being footed by her au pair agency, and the open buying of wildly contradictory expert testimony.

"I admire the system, but I don't necessarily admire the way Americans use it," says Varadarajan.

Perhaps he'll write a think piece on the differences between the British and American systems when the trial is over. Not on this day, though. Trial days are tough for Varadarajan. In order to make his deadlines, he has to run repeatedly from the courtroom and dictate 700-word pieces on the fly. When the day is over, he and his fellow Brits just want to relax.

"We intend to get extremely drunk tonight," he says. "Boston seems to be a good place for that."

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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