Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't: de-legitimization of women's agency in Commonwealth v. Woodward.

AuthorKarlin, Molly

"Mothers are never innocent." (1)

When Deborah Eappen left for work on the morning of February 4, 1997, her eight-month-old child, Matthew, was alive and in the care of his au pair of three months, British nineteen-year-old Louise Woodward. (2) When she next saw Matthew, he was in the hospital, (3) the victim of severe head trauma. (4) Five days later he was dead. (5)

The death of a child is always a disturbing event and a manifest injustice. Even where an objective analysis would fail to find fault, the tragic nature of the occurrence will lead to a search for blame. (6) This phenomenon is intensified in the courtroom, as the adversarial process demands the placement of blame. (7) Yet how blame is dispersed is often informed by far more than the evidence put before the jury. Although the parties before the court may not so acknowledge, deep-seated social understandings can also play a role in the distribution of blame. (8) The trial that ensued from the death of Matthew Eappen was no exception.

This Article will evaluate many of the social and legal factors that influence the distribution of blame when a child dies. It proceeds on the assumption that the standards of criminal law are intended in part to align legal culpability with causation--that is, the defendant's proximal responsibility for the occurrence of the act. (9) Specifically, this Article explores the disparate social criticism and legal treatment of infanticidal mothers as compared with other caretakers who kill, and concludes that, in affording non-mothers "excuses" that are not permitted for mothers, both society and courts have disregarded traditional standards required for murder and manslaughter convictions, such as proof of intent and knowledge per that of the reasonable person. (10) As a result, when faced with a female defendant charged with killing a child in her care, both the public and the legal system fail to give proper regard to the defendant's choices, and thus fail to accord her the appropriate level of blame. Furthermore, the objectification of the female defendant, particularly when she is a mother, as a symbol for a large subset of women may deny her the ability to explain her own story in the courtroom. I have referred to these effects--the tendency to ignore the actual responsibility of a particular defendant in light of a pervasive cultural counternarrative and the application of different standards of culpability to different groups of women--as the "delegitimization of women's agency."

Louise Woodward was indicted for Matthew's death. (11) She was found guilty of second degree murder by a jury of nine women and three men and was sentenced, under Massachusetts law, to the mandatory term of life imprisonment. (12) The defense moved for post-judgment relief, and on November 10, 1997, the trial judge vacated the sentence and reduced the jury's verdict from second degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. (13) He sentenced Woodward to 279 days in prison, which she had served in full during the trial and post-conviction process. (14) Less than nine months after Matthew's death, Louise Woodward was a free woman. (15)

While Woodward fought her battle in the courtroom, Deborah Eappen "face[d] the court of public opinion." (16) In the wake of the death of her son, Eappen received hate mail and threatening telephone calls. (17) She was also excoriated in the press, (18) on the radio, (19) and on the Internet. (20)

Deborah Eappen and her husband, Sunil, had hired Woodward in order for Eappen to continue her ophthalmology practice part-time; she worked three days a week and returned home in the afternoons to nurse Matthew. (21) Although Woodward's defense rested on a stalwart claim of innocence, (22) and many of her defenders suggested that Eappen, not Woodward, was guilty of abusing Matthew, (23) the primary criticism of Eappen revolved around her choice to go back to work. (24) By leaving her child with a nanny in order to resume her career, Eappen became "a public symbol of maternal neglect and yuppie greed," (25) who at least indirectly caused the tragedy by leaving him in incapable hands (26) and at worst "deserved to have her baby die[.]" (27) One man carried a banner outside the courthouse before Woodward's testimony which read, "Don't Blame the Nanny[;] Blame the Mother." (28) Indeed, "[i]t was as if Eappen had shaken Matthew to death, not the nanny." (29)

The anti-feminist backlash (30) in popular culture surrounding the issue of blame for the death of Matthew Eappen was exacerbated by the legal maneuverings at trial. As Woodward claimed that someone else was responsible for the head injuries that led to Matthew's death, (31) the attention drawn to the parents was neither unusual nor unexpected. (32) Woodward's focus on Eappen's style of mothering, as she related to the press, (33) could, at least in part, explain the public focus on Deborah, rather than Sunil Eappen.

The media circus, however, may have only been indicative of the socio-cultural understandings that informed the legal outcomes. The findings that Judge Zobel used to support his memorandum and order reducing the verdict and vacating the sentence (34) demonstrate the failure of the legal system to account for Woodward's agency in the choices that she made. Furthermore, as his decision reopened the issue of blame, he allowed common social constructions of motherhood to implicitly negate Deborah Eappen's choices as a mother. By evaluating how infanticidal mothers are generally treated by the legal system side by side with the law's treatment of Woodward and society's treatment of Eappen, this Article demonstrates that, while Woodward was held to an easier standard than most infanticidal mothers, Eappen--who was not accused of infanticide--was held to the toughest of standards.

Part I of this Article examines Massachusetts law in Commonwealth v. Woodward and analyzes the provisions that permitted the trial and sentencing to play out as they did. Part II then explores Deborah Eappen's role as the scapegoat in light of the evidence and press coverage with regard to cultural understandings of motherhood. This part asks whether the birth of a child renders female equality a dead letter in social, and ultimately legal, terms. Part III considers how Judge Zobel's interpretation of Woodward's culpability undermines women's decisionmaking by comparing the defense and outcome in Woodward to the same in cases involving maternal infanticide and neonaticide. Finally, Part IV suggests implications for these analyses on other areas of law and embraces the use of individual narrative, as in a feminist storytelling, as a step toward future socio-legal change.


    Legally speaking, the outcome in Woodward was made possible by the interplay of three factors. (35) The first was Judge Zobel's decision to deny the prosecution's request to allow the jury to consider the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter. (36) The second factor was Massachusetts' definition of murder, particularly its inclusion of "third prong malice." (37) The third was Massachusetts Rule of Criminal Procedure 25(b)(2), (38) which permits the trial court wide latitude to set aside the jury's verdict in favor of a new trial or to impose a different judgment on any offense charged in the indictment or complaint. (39)

    1. The "All-or-Nothing Doctrine": (40) Harmless Error

      Woodward was indicted for murder on March 5, 1997 in Middlesex County. (41) According to the Doctrine of Lesser-Included Offenses, in a subsequent trial, the jury could be instructed on this charge as well as on any lesser-included offense. (42) Although various tests have been offered to determine whether a lesser offense qualifies as one included in the higher charge, (43) in Woodward it was clear that involuntary manslaughter was included in the charge of murder, as the prosecution's theory of murder was based on implied malice, rather than specific intent. (44) Since a jury could find that Woodward lacked the requisite malice for murder but nonetheless killed Matthew, involuntary manslaughter was properly a lesser-included offense. (45)

      The All-or-Nothing Doctrine, permitted only in some jurisdictions, (46) "is the sanctioned failure to instruct on non-charged but lesser-included offenses." (47) Where this doctrine is invoked, the parties prefer the "high stakes game of chance" (48) of conviction on the higher charge or acquittal. (49) Commentators have noted that this strategy may be appealing to defendants who claim that another party is responsible for the crime, as it forces the jury to confront that issue rather than concern itself with standards of recklessness or intent. (50) Furthermore, where the defense is confident regarding the strength of its case, it may prefer not to undercut this advantage by permitting the prosecution to reduce its burden regarding intent or some other element required for the greater but not the lesser charge. (51)

      In Woodward, the Commonwealth requested a jury instruction on the lesser-included charge of involuntary manslaughter. The defense opposed, noting that the Doctrine of Lesser-Included Offenses permits the prosecution to overcharge the defendant initially while creating a veritable safety net for conviction by increasing the likelihood of conviction. It argued that the Commonwealth was attempting to do so here. (52) Since Woodward's defense was based on a claim of innocence rather than on mitigating factors, (53) the defense contended that in order to "avoid the conviction of an innocent person of any offense," the court should reject the requested manslaughter instruction. (54) This argument suggests that the inclusion of a lesser offense will lead the jury to convict of a crime not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, simply by virtue of the multiplicity of options. (55) Ultimately, the defense's argument was rooted in the concept that...

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