Editor’s Note: This article was submitted to The Stamford Advocate, but never printed. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like a joke with too long a setup: The punch line isn’t worth all the time it takes to get to it. On Nov. 22, 1997, Silverglate and Good, the law firm defending British au pair Louise Woodward, announced they’d hired the convicted child killer to work in their office. This followed her conviction for second-degree murder in the death of eight-month-old Matthew Eappen. The sentence was subsequently reduced to manslaughter by the judge, resulting in her immediate release with time served, making a mockery of justice for the infant’s parents and completely nullifying the decision of the jury, who must have felt they had just wasted their time delivery a verdict.
Once again, a high-profile trial has shaken our faith in the legal system as a whole and the jury system in particular. As a result of the O.J. Simpson verdict, we learned the meaning of jury nullification, when a defendant whom most Americans (as well as a civil jury) believed to be guilty as hell was set free after a jury deliberation so perfunctory that it could only be described as a mere formality.
For most Americans, this trial called into question the efficacy of the jury system in our racially polarized society. And of course, it was another case in which money talked, and criminals seemed to have more rights than their victims. When it was over, O.J. Simpson was free to spend his substantial retirement income prowling the golf courses, searching for the “real killers” and representing himself as a hero of the black community.
British au pair Louise Woodward has also become a hero of sorts. The English public seemed to accept her innocence as holy writ, as Web sites practically canonizing the convicted felon sprung up like weeds on the Internet. This new heroine is expected to reap the benefits of her crime with a movie and book deal. And, with the rise in her fortunes, our legal system has received yet another black eye.
What both cases have in common, besides controversial endings, is defense attorney Barry Scheck, whose specialty is the clever manipulation of science in the courtroom. In the Simpson trial, critics accused him of muddying the waters concerning the DNA evidence. After prosecution experts had established that the odds of anyone other than Simpson having committed the crime were one in several billion, Scheck brought out his own experts to make the science as clear as mud and confuse the jury.
One suspects that had a prosecution witness testified that the earth is round, Mr. Scheck would have hired an expert to swear that it could possibly be flat. According to the vast majority of pediatricians and neurologists, Mr. Scheck fabricated his defense in the Woodward case on a whole new area of medical pseudoscience. To win the trial, his experts delivered an analysis of “shaken baby syndrome” that contradicted decades of research on the subject from the medical community. And in the courtroom, this “hired gun” testimony was accorded the same weight as that of the medical establishment.
In the end, the jury rejected the defense’s assertions. On “CourtTV,” analysts speculated that some jurors may have been influenced by their visceral aversion to Scheck, based on his role in the Simpson trial. While it’s true that watching lawyers like Scheck and the omnipresent Alan Dershowitz on television, or reading about them in a John Grisham novel, can leave a person feeling the need for a long shower, one’s personal revulsion for representatives of a particular profession should never be a reason for finding anyone guilty of murder.
The defense team’s strategy of rejecting the option of a manslaughter verdict seemed, at first glance, to have backfired on them. Pundits wondered if Mr. Scheck had overplayed his hand in an effort to induce the prosecution to overcharge in the case. Yet the strategy that had failed to work on the jury worked just fine with Judge Hiller Zobel, who threw out the murder conviction in favor of manslaughter. By releasing the killer with time served, Zobel might just as well have found her innocent — the result was more or less the same.
There was widespread speculation in the media that adverse publicity caused the judge to overturn the conviction. In surveys, most Americans stated that murder was too harsh a verdict and life imprisonment too stiff a sentence. If public pressure on the judge caused the reversal of Woodward's fortunes, Scheck’s overplaying of the case and his failure to convince the jury of her innocence may have ironically served to get his client off. But was this a triumph of truth and justice, or a victory for clever strategies and the effects of public opinion?
The judge’s decision was no more satisfactory than the jury’s. With Louise Woodward as free to walk the streets as O.J. Simpson, where was justice for Matthew Eappen? And the jurors must have felt they’d wasted their time listening to the evidence, deliberating and rendering a verdict, once their decision had been discarded as if it were of no consequence.
After showing once again how poorly the legal system works, don’t the principals in these travesties of justice owe the public something? Barry Scheck still insists he will appeal Woodward’s case, because he believes her to be innocent. I’d like to see him make an effort to prove he’s more than just a used-car salesman in a better suit. Hence, I have a modest proposal that will enable him to show that he really is sincere in his convictions.
The lawyers at Scheck’s firm have hired Woodward to do clerical work around the office — an occupation with which she is presumably unfamiliar. Why not let her do something with which she already has experience? If he’s so sure of her innocence and his own medical expertise in this matter, Barry Scheck should hire Louise Woodward as the au pair for his own children or, if he has no children, for those of some of the partners at Silverglate and Good. Allowing her to put his children down at night would go a long way toward convincing this member of the public of Scheck’s sincerity.
However, this is likely to happen about the same time as the Goldman and the Brown families get enough money out of O.J. to force him look for a job. However, if Simpson ever does need to find work, I’d like to suggest that Mr. Scheck or Johnnie Cochran hire him to work as live-in kitchen help — he could be entrusted with the family cutlery and take charge of ensuring that their knives are always nice and sharp.
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