INDIANAPOLIS — A lawyer for a woman charged with murdering her infant because she ate rat poison while pregnant says records clearly show that the Indiana law she's charged under was only meant to apply to people who attack pregnant women, not the women themselves.
Prosecutors argue that the 1997 fetal murder statute Bei Bei Shuai faces doesn't exempt women who intentionally end their own pregnancy, and that a suicide note Shuai wrote proves she meant for her fetus to die as well.
Shuai, a Chinese immigrant from Shanghai, was eight months pregnant and heartbroken after a breakup when she ate rat poison in December 2010. She was hospitalized and doctors detected little wrong with the fetus' health for the first few days.
Shuai, 36, gave birth to Angel Shuai on Dec. 31. Three days later, the baby died from bleeding in the brain. Medical staff reported her to the police; her lawyers said it was a suicide attempt. In March 2011, after Shuai was released from treatment for depression, prosecutors charged her with murder and feticide. Her trial is scheduled to start April 22.
The case has garnered a lot of interest from women's rights advocates, who say Shuai's prosecution could establish an unequal system that would effectively hold pregnant women to a stricter legal standard than everyone else in Indiana.
The section of the law Shuai is charged under states that it can apply to a person who "knowingly or intentionally kills a fetus that has attained viability commits murder." But the sections that precede it refer to one person attacking another. Shuai's lawyers argue that means the law would apply only to someone who attacks a pregnant woman and kills their fetus.
Shuai's attorney, Linda Pence, said Friday that prosecutors are taking the fetal murder language out of context with the rest of Indiana's homicide statute and the state's legal history.
"For 200 years in Indiana history, murder has always been the murder of one person by another person," she said.
Pence filed a motion in Marion County Court this week asking Judge Sheila Carlisle to dismiss the case. She contends that records show the Legislature never intended the law to apply to pregnant women, only to their attackers. She said it was enacted following the birth of a stillborn baby to a woman who was wounded in a drive-by shooting while eight months pregnant.
"It's clear that the purpose of the bill was to get people who try to kill pregnant women," Pence said.
The Marion County prosecutor's office has declined to discuss details of the case, and spokeswoman Peg McLeish didn't immediately respond to another request for comment Friday.
Last week, prosecutors ask the judge to restrict Shuai's attorneys from questioning witnesses in ways that might elicit sympathy for her. A friend previously testified that Shuai wept as her three-day-old daughter died in her arms after she was removed from life support.
Prosecutors also asked the judge to bar courtroom spectators from wearing buttons expressing opinions about Shuai and to bar defense attorneys from questioning witnesses about their religious beliefs. Prosecutors say such motions are standard.
Shawn Boyne, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and an expert on trial procedure, said that while the type of motion is "relatively routine," its scope is unusual.
Boyne said she understood why prosecutors want to block questions that could elicit sympathy for Shuai. "In some cases, merely asking a question may plant a question in a juror's mind," she said.
Witnesses' religious beliefs could be relevant if they motivated doctors and nurses to report Shuai to police, Boyne said. She also said the U.S. Constitution and legal precedent protect spectators' free speech rights, provided they're not disruptive.
McLeish, the prosecutor's office spokeswoman, said the motion was intended to make sure Shuai is tried based on the evidence.
"We don't want to try this case in the media. We feel the case is best handled in the courtroom on its merits," McLeish said.
A petition on change.org urging the state to drop the charges against Shuai has nearly 11,000 signatures.
"This case aims to set a precedent that reduces pregnant women to walking wombs under total state control and surveillance at all times, subject to getting thrown in jail if for whatever reason we can't or don't obey," said Brooke M. Beloso, an assistant professor in gender studies at Butler University in Indianapolis who started the petition.
As concerns the evidence against Shuai, Carlisle ruled in January that the doctor who performed the autopsy on Angel can't testify that rat poison was the cause of her death because she didn't consider other possibilities, including a drug Shuai received in the hospital. Curry hasn't said whether he'll seek another medical opinion.
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