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Prosecutors seek constraints in Ind. poison case

FILE – In this May 22, 2012 file photo Bei Bei Shuai, 35, right, Indianapolis, hugs her friend, Sue Mak, second left, as attorney Linda Pence, left, looks on after Shuai’s release on bail from the Marion County Jail in Indianapolis. Prosecutors who charged Shuai with murdering her infant because she ate rat poison while pregnant are asking an Indiana judge to take steps during the trial that critics say are meant to stifle any sympathy jurors might have for a woman who’s become an international cause. (AP Photo/Charles D. Wilson, File)

FILE – In this May 22, 2012 file photo Bei Bei Shuai, 35, right, Indianapolis, hugs her friend, Sue Mak, second left, as attorney Linda Pence, left, looks on after Shuai’s release on bail from the Marion County Jail in Indianapolis. Prosecutors who charged Shuai with murdering her infant because she ate rat poison while pregnant are asking an Indiana judge to take steps during the trial that critics say are meant to stifle any sympathy jurors might have for a woman who’s become an international cause. (AP Photo/Charles D. Wilson, File)

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Prosecutors who charged a mother with murdering her infant because she ate rat poison while pregnant are asking an Indiana judge to take steps during the trial that critics say are meant to stifle any sympathy jurors might have for a woman who’s become an international cause.

Bei Bei Shuai’s story has generated a wave of global news coverage, as well as support from people who fear the case could open the door for pregnant women to be prosecuted for doing anything authorities deem dangerous to a fetus. Shuai, a 36-year-old Chinese immigrant from Shanghai, was eight months pregnant when she ate rat poison in December 2010 in what her attorneys say was a suicide attempt. She then gave birth to a premature girl who later died.

Her trial on charges of murder and feticide is scheduled to start on April 22. Prosecutors are asking Judge Sheila Carlisle to bar courtroom spectators from wearing buttons expressing opinions about Shuai and to bar defense attorneys from questioning witnesses about their religious beliefs or from asking questions that might create sympathy for Shuai.

Prosecutors contend motions like the one they filed late last week are standard procedure.

An expert on Indiana trial procedure says that while the type of motion is “relatively routine,” prosecutors’ requests are unusual.

“The scope of this motion extends beyond what I was used to seeing in my almost 10 years of practice as a prosecutor and a defense attorney,” said Shawn Boyne, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis.

Prosecutors charged Shuai in March 2011 under Indiana’s fetal murder law, which her lawyers maintain was intended to apply only to people who attack pregnant women. They say her suicide note showed she intended to kill her unborn baby as well as herself.

Shuai ate the poison on Dec. 23, 2010, after her boyfriend broke up with her. She was hospitalized and doctors detected little wrong with the fetus’ health for the first few days. Shuai gave birth to Angel Shuai on Dec. 31. Three days later, the baby died from bleeding in the brain.

Boyne said she thought she understood the motive behind the request for defense attorneys to avoid questions that elicit sympathy. “In some cases, merely asking a question may plant a question in a juror’s mind,” she said.

Shuai’s attorney, Linda Pence, said she didn’t know how she could follow such a restriction. “You can’t ask a court or ask a lawyer to word their questions to avoid sympathy. That’s something the jury determines, not the lawyers.”

Boyne noted that the religious beliefs of the doctors and nurses could explain their motives for reporting Shuai to police.

As for spectators, Boyne said the U.S. Constitution and legal precedent protect their free speech rights, provided they’re not disruptive. “Since it is the defendant’s right to a fair trial that we are concerned with, I don’t understand why the state would be prejudiced by this speech,” she said in an email.

A spokeswoman for Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry 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,” said Curry’s spokeswoman, Peg McLeish.

Stories about Shuai have appeared in countries as far-ranging as Sweden, Italy, China and Brazil. Bloggers have pleaded her case, and 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.

Ed Pilkington, chief U.S. reporter for the UK-based Guardian newspaper, explained why the case is interesting to people outside Indiana: “For a woman to be charged with murder relating to a suicide attempt that she made when she was carrying the fetus that subsequently died after premature birth was a legal act that had resonance, I believe, with all our readers no matter where they are located.”

But at this point, the problem for prosecutors may be global sympathy, but the local kind, said the head of a group that is helping defend her.

“I think the motion is an admission by the prosecutor that the case is recognized by a growing number of people in Indiana who recognize he is setting up a separate and unequal system of treatment that is going to affect all pregnant women, not just Bei Bei Shuai,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the New York-based National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

McLeish declined to discuss any reasons behind prosecutors’ motion.

“The prosecution is simply requesting that the Rules of Evidence be adhered to throughout the proceedings and to clarify those standards and expectations at the outset before any concerns arise. Ultimately, the state wants this and any case to be tried on its merits,” she said in a statement.

As far as 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.

Associated Press

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