A Look Back at the Shaken Baby Case

Family of baby shaken to death by nanny copes by taking up a cause.

ByABC News via logo
February 9, 2009, 6:05 PM

Oct. 30, 2007 — -- The murder trial of British au pair Louise Woodward 10 years ago rocked the small town of Newton, Mass., and brought "shaken baby syndrome" into the national consciousness.

Woodward, 19, was found guilty of second-degree murder for violently shaking 8-month-old Matthew Eappen and causing his death.

Days after the jury's decision, the judge shocked residents by commuting the sentence down to manslaughter and releasing Woodward for time served (about nine months). She returned to Britain and has maintained she did not hurt Matthew.

Ten years after Woodward's trial brought shaken baby syndrome into the limelight, Matthew's parents, Debbie and Sunil Eappen, are committed to making sure it stays there.

"I feel like a positive from this is to be able to say to our kids, look, when something goes really wrong, we are able to make a difference by trying to make something really right," said Debbie Eappen, an ophthalmologist and mother of Brendan, 12; Kevin, 8; and Elisabeth, 6.

The Matty Eappen Foundation, founded by the Eappens a year after Matthew's death, is dedicated to education and the prevention of shaken baby syndrome and to the memory of their son.

When a baby is shaken, the brain make impacts with the skull. The result is bruising, swelling and bleeding of the brain, which can cause permanent damage and even death.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome estimates that hospitals in the United States handle 1,300 cases of abuse-related head trauma in children every year, most of them diagnosed as shaken baby syndrome and many caused by parents or caregivers frustrated over incessant crying or fussiness. One quarter of shaken baby syndrome cases result in death.

Perhaps surprisingly, 75 percent of shaken baby cases involve parents, and men are more often the perpetrators, according to Dr. Alice Newton, director of the child protection team at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"I think it's a lot about anger management, about understanding normal infant development, understanding that babies do cry for several hours a day," Debbie Eappen said in an exclusive interview with "Good Morning America" today. "And learning how to cope with the frustration of being a caregiver."

When the judge presiding over Woodward's case reduced her conviction, he said he believed Woodward had acted out of "confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense."

Earlier this year, lead prosecution witness Patrick Barnes, a radiologist who treated Matthew at Children's Hospital in Boston, revised his opinion on what had happened to the boy. He now says Matthew's death could have been caused by an old injury, which is the scenario the defense argued. Few of Barnes' colleagues share that opinion.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of prosecutors in the case, joined Debbie Eappen on "GMA." Coakley said that Barnes has since developed a "very lucrative" practice testifying for the defense in similar cases.

"Although Dr. Barnes is and was a respected witness in this case, his changing of opinion is really unconscionable I think," Coakley said. "As he's voiced his opinion, no one has joined him in it, and I think that's very telling."

Woodward received a law degree in 2002, but left the profession after a year. According to the most recent reports, she and her boyfriend are dance teachers in England. She never apologized to the Eappens.

"To me it's really not about Louise, it's about Matthew," Debbie said. "Matthew should be with us today, and he should be celebrating the Red Sox and going trick-or-treating and being an 11-year-old boy."

"I focus on my family and my kids and kind of that loss of innocence we all live with now."

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