Prosecutors in Indiana are being accused of trying to muzzle and intimidate a Chinese woman who has been charged with murder and attempted foeticide after she attempted to kill herself by eating rat poison while eight months pregnant.
Bei Bei Shuai’s lawyer, Linda Pence, has filed papers with the Indiana courts in which she alleges that state prosecutors are trying to “intimidate and seek to silence the defendant and her counsel”. She also accuses the authorities of attempting to block her from building up the fighting fund that would be essential if they are to mount an effective defence.
Last month the state of Indiana lodged a motion with the courts in Indianapolis calling for Pence to be admonished for content contained in emails the defence lawyer circulated asking for financial help in creating a fighting fund for Shuai. The defendant, originally from Shanghai, was held in jail for more than a year and now faces a murder trial related to the death of her baby, Angel, who died three days after she was delivered by emergency Caesarian.
The case is believed to be the first in 200 years of Indiana history in which a woman is being prosecuted for murder over a suicide attempt while pregnant. Women’s groups around the country have warned that it could set a precedent in which the actions of a pregnant woman are criminalised.
In its motion for admonishment, the prosecutors accuse Pence of breaking the Indiana professional conduct code by circulating information that could prejudice a jury convened at the eventual trial. The prosecutors object in particular to the defence lawyer’s public statements that Shuai has no previous criminal record.
They also object object to Pence’s statement that Shuai faces a possible sentence of 45 years to life imprisonment. “The sentencing range for murder is 45-65 years,” the motion states.
“Defence counsel does not have the right through mass emails to publicly argue the case, misstate facts, discuss the defendant’s background, and inaccurately state the potential sentence the defendant faces,” the prosecutors’ motion says, adding such actions could “prejudice the potential jury pool”.
In her rebuttal, Pence points out that within hours of the death of Shuai’s daughter Angel on 3 January 2011, Indianapolis police themselves indicated to the media that Shuai had no previous criminal record. The response also points to numerous comments that have been reported from senior prosecutors that went beyond the public record, such as the statement of Terry Curry, the chief prosecutor for Indianapolis, that had Shuai “sought counseling, this could have been avoided“.
As to the length of sentence, the rebuttal points out that a median 55-year prison term would be tantamount to a life sentence for Shuai, who is now 35.
On Friday, Shuai turned down an offer of a deal from the prosecutors in which she would plea guilty to attempted foeticide, carrying a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, in return for the murder charge being dropped. Pence said her client was determined to fight all the charges and to clear her name.
The move to have Shuai’s lawyer admonished has rung warning bells among criminal defence lawyers across the US. Richard Kammen, a member of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers, said that it was “hard to fathom their thinking and what they want to get out of this”.
“This strikes me as being way outside what a prosecutor should be doing. Given the numerous public statements about this case made by the prosecutor, it makes you wonder what the agenda might be – is it to intimidate her or prevent her raising money?”
Curry said that the suggestion he was trying to prevent Pence waging an effective defence on Shuai’s behalf was “simply not true. Our motion doesn’t say anything about her ability to solicit contributions for her client.
“If she wants to send out emails asking for contributions, then fine, do it. But limit your comments to what’s on the public record and don’t argue your case.”
[Gavel and law book image via Shutterstock]