The outcome of the trial of Louise Woodward, in which the British au pair's murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter, and whose sentence was cut to time served, in the death of baby Matthew Eappen, startled the watching world. But it was not the first time that an outcome of a famous case defied public expectations.
Perhaps the closest spiritual antecedent to the Woodward case was the trial of Lizzie Borden, a Sunday school teacher who lived with her father and stepmother. On Aug. 4, 1892, the two were found brutally hacked up in the parlor of the family home. Borden was charged with the murders but acquitted by a Fall Brook, Mass., jury. World opinion differed from the jury's verdict, and gave birth to the ditty:
Lizzie Bordon took an ax
And gave her mother 40 whacks
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.
Massachusetts also played host to one of the most controversial prosecutions of the 20th century, that of Sacco and Vanzetti. Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fish monger, were convicted of robbing and killing the paymaster and guard of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Mass., on Aug. 15, 1920. A year later, they were found guilty.
The case against them was based largely on questionable forensic evidence and a paid informant. But despite the emergence of exculpatory new evidence, trial Judge Webster Thayer refused a new trial, Gov. Alvan T. Fuller denied clemency and both men were electrocuted in 1927, declaring their innocence to the very end.
Violent demonstrations erupted both in the United States and Europe. Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel "Boston" followed in 1928. Fifty years later, it had become clear that the two men were framed. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis issued Sacco and Vanzetti belated pardons, stating "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names."
Perhaps the greatest trial as theater in American history was the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" in rural Tennessee. Teacher John L. Scopes was forbidden by law to teach Darwin's theory of evolution in his science class. He defied the law. The subsequent trial, which drew hundreds of reporters to Dayton, Tenn., pitted former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow.
Although Scopes was convicted (fined $100 and fired from teaching), the trial made Tennessee an international laughing stock, set back the cause of Christian fundamentalism and was the precursor to the general prohibition against teaching religious doctrine in public schools.
Neither New England nor the United States has a monopoly on inflammatory judicial proceedings. The 19th-century "trial of the century" was the Dreyfus affair, a proceeding so controversial that it caused fistfights to break out as far away as San Francisco, as well as in Paris and throughout Europe.
Dreyfus, a Jewish officer assigned to the French army's general staff, was falsely accused of giving information to the German military attache in Paris. Sustained efforts to free him created a constitutional crisis for the French Third Republic that ultimately involved clashes between republicans and rightists, the Catholic Church and the army in an atmosphere of pervasive anti-Semitism. After three trials and protracted incarceration on Devil's Island, Dreyfus was pardoned by French President Emile Loubet, but the French government was condemned by most of the Western world for its role in the case.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts where Woodward was tried is also where hundreds of Salem residents were jailed and 19 women executed for allegedly practicing witchcraft before Cotton Mather delivered a sermon suggesting that things had gotten out of hand. Subsequently, Judge Samuel Sewall and the jurors publicly confessed their culpability in rushing to judgment.
When Judge Hiller B. Zobel overturned the jury's judgment in the British nanny trial, Woodward was happily alive to appreciate the unexpected outcome.