True Crime Tuesdays: The Killer Nanny: Did She Do It?
Helen Archer | On 18, Jan 2022
In late 1996, Deborah and Sunil Eappen hired 19-year-old Louise Woodward as an au pair, to look after their children, 2-year-old Brendan and his baby brother, Matthew. Woodward had next to no experience in childcare, but was excited to be living in an affluent Boston suburb, taking advantage of her new environs to go and see the stage musicals she was so keen on. But just a couple of months into her employment, 8-month-old Matthew was found with horrendous injuries while under Louise’s care. It sparked a controversial court case, a discussion about the medical science behind “shaken baby syndrome”, and something of an ideological battle between Britain and the US.
It’s now 25 years since baby Matthew died, which can perhaps explain the renewed interest in the case – ITV produced a one-off documentary broadcast in November 2021, followed by this limited series, screened over three days on Channel 4. The programme makers break it down into the case for the prosecution and the case for the defence, while the final episode looks at the aftermath. It proves to be an effective format. Although there is no input from the either the Eappens or Louise and her family, it does have access to the lawyers, detectives, journalists and jury members involved in the case, and the paramedics who attended the initial call-out in February 1997. They paint a vivid picture of the events – and the emotions – of the time.
What stands out from the first episode – and throughout – is the anger still held by those who were intimately connected to the case. The drama of the American justice system is evoked by courtroom footage of lawyers and expert witnesses who graphically demonstrated the way in which Woodward was alleged to have inflicted Matthew’s injuries. One detective interviewed is scathing about Woodward, noting that during her police interview she never once asked about Matthew – who spent six days in hospital with fractured skull and subdural haematoma, before having his life support turned off – and describing the shocking language used to describe her handling of Matthew, as she admitted she had “tossed” him onto the bed, “dropped” him on the floor, and conceded that she had been “a little rough” with him.
The second episode deals with the defence, and although it shines a little more nuance on the case, Woodward’s lawyers are, in their own way, as dramatic as the prosecution. If Barry Scheck looks familiar, it’s because he was on OJ Simpson’s defence team, and has become something of a celebrity in the true crime documentary world. Here, he is vociferous in his disdain for the tactics of the prosecution, even as his co-counsel Elaine Sharp makes bizarre references to the Salem witch trials and makes much of Woodward’s petite stature and “tiny hands”, which she apparently thinks would be no match for the “butter-ball” baby Matthew. Woodward herself, meanwhile, did herself no favours in the courtroom, smiling and laughing with her lawyers and giggling when she took the stand. Meanwhile, the defence’s case – that Matthew died from historic injuries – necessarily put the spotlight on the bereaved parents themselves.
The third and final episode is perhaps the most intriguing, detailing, as it does, the schism which developed between Sharp and Woodward post-trial, and Sharp’s increasingly alarming phone calls to journalists, in which she is said to have claimed that she felt her client was, in fact, guilty. It also alludes to Woodward’s parents taking money from the press for interviews – and the after-effects felt by the vocal support group Woodward had in her home town, who riled the Americans by insensitively celebrating any “good” news that came from across the pond.
As the rather sensationalist title of the documentary suggests, it’s left up to the viewer to unpick the nuances of the case. The 25 years that have passed have, it seems, done little to clarify the facts of the matter, and the heat that surrounded the trial, although dampened, is still evident in the thoughts and words of those closest to it. As with so much true crime, the “truth” of the matter remains frustratingly opaque, but as an overview of a case which gripped both sides of the Atlantic, Killer Nanny works as an efficient primer.
The Killer Nanny: Did She Do It? is available on All 4.