Sitting in Judgment

I was holding my sister's one-month-old son in Framingham, Massachusetts, a mile away from the women's prison, when a jury found its most famous resident, Louise Woodward, guilty of killing eight-month-old Matthew Eappen. Around Framingham--if not in England, the nanny's native country--people were cheering.

I could only hope that somewhere, Nancy Smith felt that the verdict was her victory, recompense for justice long denied.

Two weeks later Louise Woodward is free, after spending 279 days behind bars--less than the time it takes for a fetus to become a full-term baby--because a judge reduced her conviction from second-degree murder to manslaughter and sentenced her to time already served.

I cannot guess what Smith is feeling today.
Unless you have suffered the death of a child, and then suffered the horror of being wrongfully accused of causing that child's death, and then watched the child's real killer go free, you cannot know what Nancy Smith is feeling today, or what she has been feeling ever since her child was taken off life support on September 20, 1989.

Ryan was just three months old when Nancy Smith dropped him off at his babysitter's early on the morning of September 18, 1989. A 27-year-old single mother who'd moved to Colorado from Ohio, Smith had a bookkeeping job, a good job, at a local oil company; she considered herself lucky to have found daycare in her apartment complex in unincorporated Arapahoe County. The sitter, 24-year-old Roxanne Anania, came highly recommended--by references who were Anania's sisters, it turned out, though they hadn't mentioned that when Smith called.

Ryan cried when his mother left him with Anania at 6:30 a.m., but then, as the babysitter later told police, "he usually cries a little when she leaves."

At about 11 a.m. Anania called 911 and reported that the child was having "difficulty breathing." Ryan had seemed fine, she said, and she'd fed him two bottles (her story would later change) and put him down for a nap. He'd started jerking and vomiting and then had stopped breathing. She'd administered CPR, she told paramedics, but one firefighter later noted: "Babysitter was by my opinion either not aware of the baby's condition or did not care."

An ambulance took Ryan to Aurora-Humana Hospital. When Smith arrived--after getting a call at work from Anania, she'd rushed to the sitter's apartment, only to find her son already gone--"she was very upset and crying," one deputy wrote.

Humana's emergency-room crew could not determine what was wrong with Ryan, and he was moved to Children's Hospital. Doctors there reached their conclusion much more swiftly. A CAT scan showed that Ryan had suffered a massive skull fracture.

After an eight-month investigation, Nancy Smith was charged in May 1990 with felony child abuse resulting in death and scheduled for trial in Arapahoe County. Among the clues pointing to her guilt: She had decided to retain an attorney, but only after she had already spoken to police, and she had refused to take a lie detector test. And according to an expert witness for the prosecution, Smith possessed one telltale characteristic indicating her involvement: She was a single mother living under stress, pointed out Dr. Richard Krugman.

At the time, Dr. Richard Krugman was director of the Kempe Children's Center, as well as acting dean of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Today he is the dean of CU's med center and one of Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter's experts on the JonBenet Ramsey case. (Barry Scheck, usually a defense expert--for O.J. Simpson, as Woodward's attorney--is also a member of Hunter's "dream team.")

In January 1991 Krugman was in San Diego, speaking at a conference on child maltreatment. With the cameras rolling, he began talking about a Colorado case "consistent with an ongoing child-abuse situation" and asked for the audience's help: "I mean, I know who I'm testifying for, but when you raise your hand in court and say the truth, the whole truth, you'd like to be sure you have it."

But by the time Krugman had bumbled his way through his presentation, he'd convinced at least two doctors in the audience to testify not for the prosecution, but for the defense.

Dr. Harry Wilson, a pediatric pathologist at Children's Hospital who'd already signed on as a defense witness, also spoke at the conference: "The prosecutor told me his gut feeling is the mother did it because the mother seemed to want to confess, hired a lawyer and didn't take a lie detector test."

Unfortunately for the prosecution, the medical evidence simply didn't support the scenario of Smith having killed her baby. Ryan's pediatrician had seen the baby nine times in his short life--and had never noted any signs of abuse, much less "ongoing" abuse. More conclusive, however, was an analysis of a spinal tap done when Ryan was first taken to Humana: The fluid was clear, which meant the injury had been inflicted shortly before Anania called 911.

Like the Eappens, Smith had left a child with a trusted caretaker. Soon after, both babies had gone from fine to far from fine, then descended rapidly into comas from which they never recovered; in both instances, death was attributed to lethal brain trauma.

And like Woodward, Anania was never able to give a very clear explanation of what had happened. "Just because I was the one watching the child," Anania told Westword, "Nancy Smith thinks she's going to escape."

But Smith did escape the horrors of a trial, thanks to a persistent attorney and committed expert witnesses. Arapahoe County dropped the charges against Smith one week before her trial was to begin; prosecutors left open the possibility of filing them again.

Anania, who has since moved out of state, was never charged in connection with Ryan's death.

On February 16, 1994, another three-month-old infant, Alec Olbright, who'd seemed fine that day, stopped breathing. The babysitter watching him in the Olbrights' home told his mother, who was doing housework, and she rushed her child to Boulder Community Hospital. The next day Alec was taken to Children's, where he died. Boulder County Coroner John Meyer performed an autopsy and determined that the baby had suffered a "closed head injury."

Boulder police investigated the death as a homicide; both the mother and the babysitter got lawyers (the babysitter hired Bryan Morgan, later John Ramsey's attorney). In a July 21, 1995, addendum to the police report, Sergeant Joe Pelle noted that the deputy DA assigned to the case had written a letter to Hunter stating that while probable cause existed to charge the babysitter, the evidence was "highly impeachable," since it involved testimony from children and also from medical experts who disagreed with one another. Pelle's addendum concluded: "The District Attorney's Office had this case for several months, re-conducted interviews, and consulted with numerous experts in the field. At this time, it does not appear that a provable case can be filed, and they have declined prosecution."

Although no one was ever charged with Alec Olbright's murder, his death did inspire one action: Boulder created a Child Death Investigation Team, to respond more quickly to child murders.

Judging from the JonBenet case, though, certainly not to solve them any more quickly.

The Eappens know who killed their son; she's been found guilty. And unlike Nancy Smith, Deborah Eappen was never accused of killing her child--except, of course, by those who say it's criminal for a mother to work and leave her child with a babysitter.

Even if that babysitter is the criminal.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun