Judge Frees Au Pair

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CAMBRIDGE: Louise Woodward is free. That was the word from Judge Hiller Zobel, who reduced the British au pair's sentence to 279 days, or time served, after downgrading her crime Monday to involuntary manslaughter. Zobel said he wanted to bring a "compassionate conclusion" to the case.

It was a decision that delighted the English and polarized America. "It is a little troubling," confessed TIME National Correspondent (and former civil rights lawyer) Adam Cohen. "We are a system that believes in juries. When a judge steps in, you have to ask why." Nevertheless, Zobel ruled earlier, there had been no malice in Woodward's actions — and therefore her murder conviction was invalid.

Back in Britain, the Free Louise campaign was jubilant. But the tiny village of Elton, Cheshire soon learned Louise would not be on the next flight home. The court said it would hold on to Louise's passport, pending an appeal by prosecutors against the shock turnaround.

Online verdict flops

It was supposed to be the first decision in a major trial to reach the world via the internet. As it turned out, the long arm of Murphy's law intervened. A power failure — caused by two men in a manhole, of all things — prevented the judge’s words from entering cyberspace. The news broke via an older electronic medium — television. In fact, reporters even had paper copies of the decision in their hands a whole hour before anyone could see it online.

Meanwhile, at least one woman didn’t get the news via television or computer screen. Facing Judge Zobel for sentencing, Louise Woodward learned her fate the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.

  • Read the full text of Judge Zobel's decision

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  • Discuss Judge Zobel's ruling on the Crime Board