Massachusetts Judge Defied Jury in Famous ‘Nanny Case’

Two-decade veteran of the Middlesex Courthouse gains a reputation for independence and immortality on “The Practice”

Courtesy OF 1953 harvard yearbook

Hiller B. Zobel '53

On the popular Boston-based television program, “The Practice,” the actress Linda Hunt played the part of a strong-willed judge who was not afraid to reject the grand speeches of the charming, blue-eyed Bobby O’Donnell.

Many have speculated that the show’s creator David E. Kelley based this fictional Judge Zoe Hiller on the real-life former Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, Hiller B. Zobel ’53.

And although Zobel does not recall meeting Kelley, he has heard the former-lawyer-turned-writer has said that he argued a case before the infamous judge.

But Judge Hiller’s determination not to waver in the face of public opinion and dedication to the letter of the law seem strikingly similar to the presence Zobel became famous for in the Middlesex County Courthouse.

Zobel was a household name in Boston even before “The Practice” immortalized him through Judge Hiller.

In 1997, he presided over the notorious “Nanny Case” in which the au pair Louise Woodward was accused of violently shaking a Newton family’s baby to death. The jury found Woodward guilty of second-degree murder—but Zobel overturned the verdict, finding the British au pair guilty of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. Woodward went free with time served.

Zobel made national news with his shocking decision to disregard the jury’s recommendation and solidified the unique reputation he built over 22 years as a Middlesex judge.

“Judge Zobel was fiercely independent,” says Harvey Silverglate, Woodward’s defense lawyer. “He had the courage of his convictions, too. When he was convinced he was right, he stuck to his guns.”

Even as a first-year at Harvard, Zobel exhibited his independent—and sometimes in-your-face—attitude.

“It is true that he greeted me with a flaming tennis ball soaked in lighter fluid which came sailing down the stone staircase of Mower B as I arrived,” says Zobel’s first-year roommate John Cooke Dowd ’53-’90. “It did provide me with a somewhat less than usually banal introduction to life as a Harvard undergraduate.”

Despite this unorthodox meeting on the Mower Hall stairs, Dowd describes Zobel as a friendly but serious student.

Zobel initially began at Harvard as a pre-med student with a concentration in romance languages.

It was not until midway through his sophomore year that he realized the law was his calling and switched his concentration to American government.

Outside the classroom, Zobel spent most of his time at The Harvard Crimson, covering football, hockey and baseball as he worked his way up to become an associate sports editor.

Philip M. Cronin, who was president of The Crimson at the time, says Zobel was a dedicated sports writer.

But Zobel was not content to just sit on the sidelines and report on games. He played freshman soccer and intramural football, soccer, hockey and baseball for Leverett House as an upperclassman.

“What you should know about Hiller Zobel is that he is one of the state’s leading experts in baseball trivia,” Former State Appeals Court Judge Rudolph Kass, who worked with Zobel on The Crimson as the managing editor, told the Boston Globe. “He used to keep in his lobby, no matter where he went, a picture of Babe Ruth.”

Zobel toyed with the idea of going into journalism as an undergraduate, working as the Harvard sports correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and spending one summer as a copyboy for the San Francisco Chronicle.

But Zobel knew from his experience in American Government that he wanted to go into the law and was accepted to Harvard Law School (HLS) after graduating from the College in 1953.

Before he arrived at the Law School, however, Zobel spent two years stationed in Hawaii and then on the USS Los Angeles as an officer in the Navy, following many of his classmates into military service during the Korean War.

It was at Oxford University after the Navy that Zobel discovered a passion for analyzing English legal and constitutional history that would stay with him even as he delved into practicing law.

In his third year at HLS, Zobel landed a position to work as a legal intern for his professor, Pulitzer-Prize winner Mark DeWolfe Howe. Together they studied the manuscripts written by the family of President John Adams as part of a project founded in 1954 by the Massachusetts Historical Society called the Adams Papers.

Even after Zobel’s internship ended and he began building a law career, he continued to put together a book on the legal papers of John Adams with fellow HLS student L. Kinvin Wroth, which was published by Harvard University Press in 1965.

“He was an exhaustive researcher, meticulous in his citation and quotation of sources and his editing of documents,” Wroth says. “[He was] a careful prose stylist, and one who saw and clearly described the broader legal and historical significance of the often narrow and technical material with which we worked.”

In 1970, Zobel wrote another book, The Boston Massacre, making him the definitive expert on the 1770 incident when British troops fired on a mob of American colonists.

Zobel credits his experience on The Crimson and study of the Adams Papers with fueling his lifelong, intertwined interests in the law and writing.

Aside from his more academic writings, he was a vocal presence in the Boston legal community as a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor for six years, commentating on legal procedures from his vantage point as a judge.

Zobel practiced at the Boston-based firms of Bingham, Dana & Gould and Hill & Barlow for eight years, primarily handling cases that dealt with admiralty or maritime law. In addition, Zobel took a professorship with Boston College Law School for nearly 12 years until 1979 when he was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court as an associate justice.

As a judge, Zobel acquired a reputation for being arrogant but never unfair.

“Zobel could be a cantankerous fellow, and he often was,” says Silverglate, “But I have great respect for him, even if he sometimes was impossible and frustrating to deal with.”

Zobel is infamous for never allowing lawyers to touch his judge’s bench, but also for decorating it with two vases of fresh flowers at opposite ends every day.

Beyond the bench, Zobel has lent his expertise to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, testifying and advocating the use of cameras in the courtroom.

“I was experienced, since Massachusetts has been using cameras in its courtrooms since 1980, and from what I can see, TV cameras do not cause any problems,” Zobel says. Just as Zobel has made his mark in the Middlesex courthouse, in the Boston legal community and in the national media, he has crept into the dictionary’s legal definitions.

Under the second entry for the word “sentencing” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Zobel is quoted as saying, “Prosecutors and sentencing judges alike try to deal with individuals on an individual basis, without regard to social status.”

Zobel, who was forced to retire in February 2002 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, says he feels fortunate to have served as a judge and will continue to write about the law by examining the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedures and publishing a book on the former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Despite the high-profile Woodward case and his immortalization on “The Practice,” Zobel says he simply hopes to be remembered as “a judge...who was fair and who did his duty and decided matters without regard to whether or not the decision was popular or unpopular.”

—Staff writer Anat Maytal can be reached at maytal@fas.harvard.edu.