Woman freed after plea agreement in baby’s death

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INDIANAPOLIS — Bei Bei Shuai walked out of an Indianapolis courtroom Friday to have an ankle monitor removed — and to move on with her life, free of legal weights.
But the 36-year-old originally from China is likely to move forward with the weight of memories, regrets she acknowledged and continued public attention as her case is debated by women's rights advocates and legal scholars.
Shuai had been facing charges of murder and attempted feticide after her daughter, Angel, died a few days after birth. Prosecutors alleged Shuai killed her child by eating rat poison in December 2010, when she was pregnant.
After a surprise plea agreement was offered Friday morning, Shuai pleaded guilty to criminal recklessness.
The murder and attempted feticide charges were dropped. She was sentenced to 178 days in jail and given credit for 89 she actually spent at the Marion County Jail and for another 89 days of "good time."
EARLIER STORY: Murder charge raises women's rights questions
Marion County Superior Judge Sheila A. Carlisle accepted the agreement worked out between Shuai's attorney and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry's office.
Shuai's trial was scheduled to begin Sept. 3, and it was expected to attract national media attention.
"It feels great," the soft-spoken Shuai said after the hearing at the City-County Building.
Said Linda Pence, her attorney: "From the beginning, I have been convinced that this case was not a criminal case. It should never have been filed."
Curry, reached later by telephone, said his decision hinged on two issues: The judge's previous ruling that limited prosecution evidence related to the baby's cause of death, and concern that conviction of anything other than a misdemeanor could have triggered deportation efforts.
Curry said no one wanted to jeopardize Shuai's immigration status, and that he always had been open to finding a resolution that fit the "unique circumstances" of the Shuai case.
But, Curry said, those circumstances also included a note that Shuai wrote before taking the rat poison, indicating she specifically wanted to kill the baby as well as herself.
The saga began Dec. 23, 2010, when a friend of Shuai's found her in her car at a gas station in Anderson. He thought she looked ill and suggested he take her to his home so his wife could help her.
Shuai later acknowledged she ate rat poison in her Indianapolis home to kill herself because her boyfriend — the father of the child she was carrying — had left her.
She first went to an Anderson hospital but was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where she gave birth to a daughter, Angel, on Dec. 31 via Cesarean section. Angel was put on life support, but those machines later were removed and she died Jan. 3 from bleeding in her brain.
The case drew widespread attention because it involved at least two highly emotional and complex legal issues: the rights of women and the rights of unborn children.
Advocates for Shuai, who had planned a rally for Tuesday to support her in her legal battle, said they were thrilled about Friday's outcome. But they acknowledged that thorny legal questions remain unanswered.
"I hope this is debriefed a lot in the public forum," said Sue Ellen Braunlin, co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice.
Other women in similar circumstances — pregnant, suicidal and depressed — might fear prosecution if they take desperate actions and then consider seeking medical help, Braunlin said.
They might simply not seek help, for fear of being arrested, she said.
"Suicide attempts happen a lot, and they happen when women are pregnant," Braunlin said.
Curry doesn't necessarily agree with Shuai's advocates, but he did agree that a review of Indiana laws — outside a courtroom, focused on a specific case — would be useful.
"It would be appropriate for the Legislature to determine: What was their intent?" Curry said.
In Shuai's case, he said, the defense claimed the law never was intended to apply to pregnant women, but his reading was that it did in this case, partly because of Shuai's note indicated the child's death was part of her intent. And, Curry noted, the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with his interpretation of the law.
Part of the discussion, said Carolyn Meagher, also co-president of the Indiana coalition, is whether it's even possible to write a law that fairly and completely covers all possible scenarios of tough issues raised in cases like this.
"Absolution not," Meagher said. "There are so many circumstances."
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