Charges dismissed against parents of former au pair Louise Woodward

LONDON - The parents of former au pair Louise Woodward were cleared Tuesday of defrauding an appeal fund set up in their daughter's name, and they immediately pleaded for ''this whole unhappy and upsetting episode'' to be put behind them.

Judge John Roberts ordered jurors to find Gary and Susan Woodward innocent of defrauding the Louise Woodward and Family Trust of more than $13,500, saying the prosecution failed to prove some of the money in the fund was not donated solely for the parents' use.

''From the very beginning we denied any wrongdoing,'' the Woodwards said in a statement read outside Chester Crown Court by one of their lawyers.

''We hope that today's acquittal will now draw a line under this whole unhappy and upsetting episode and that the press and other news media will now leave us and our family alone,'' the statement said.

The couple, both 44 and now estranged, refused to answer reporters' questions.

Louise Woodward, now 22 and a London law student, was convicted in Massachusetts in 1997 of murdering 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, a baby in her care. A judge later downgraded the conviction to manslaughter and she was freed after serving 279 days in jail.

The au pair's trial - shown live on television - made headlines around the world, and prompted the public to donate some $325,000 to her appeal fund, started at a local pub in Chester, the northwest England town where the Woodwards lived.

In 1998, after Louise Woodward returned to Britain, Cheshire Police Superintendent Phil Thompson said he received a complaint from an unidentified member of the public about how the fund money was being spent.

The au pair's parents had been accused of falsely claiming reimbursement for the cost of accommodation at the home of their daughter's Boston lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, before and during the murder trial.

While the judge agreed that prosecutors had presented evidence that could lead jurors to conclude the Woodwards submitted the invoice ''dishonestly,'' he said prosecutors failed to establish fraud by proving some of the money used to reimburse the family wasn't intended for their personal use anyway.

Whitfield Sharp criticized the ruling, saying the Woodwards had walked free on a technicality. She has denied that she ever charged the family $2,200 a month for rent, as claimed on the submitted invoice.

''The Woodwards may not, legally, be criminals,'' Whitfield Sharp said in a statement from Boston. ''But they have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be liars and swindlers.''

The former au pair had accompanied her parents to the trial's opening day last week, and was listed as a possible defense witness at the trial, originally expected to last three weeks. She was not in court on Tuesday, however.

Her parents have maintained her conviction was ''a travesty'' and repeated Tuesday that they continue to hope ''that one day justice will be done in her case.''

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