INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana judge set bail Friday for a Chinese immigrant who has spent more than a year in jail on charges that she murdered her 33-week-old fetus by eating rat poison, in a closely watched case that has potentially broad implications for women’s rights.
The $50,000 bond Judge Sheila Carlisle set for Bei Bei Shuai is unusual, as defendants in Indiana murder cases are rarely given the chance. Carlisle denied Shuai’s bond request last June, but a state appeals court agreed with Shuai’s attorneys that there was enough evidence to cast doubt on the murder and feticide charges she faces.
The soft-spoken Shuai, wearing an orange jumpsuit and occasionally dabbing at her wet eyes with a tissue, assured the judge that she would not flee to China to avoid prison. "I want to fight this case," she said on the witness stand.
"I love this country," said the 35-year-old Shanghai native, who said she came to the U.S. in 2000. "I’ve become a mature woman here instead of a little girl."
Even so, Carlisle ordered Shuai to surrender her passport and submit to GPS tracking after she was released. She also was told not to leave the state without the court’s permission. Her attorney, Linda Pence, said Shuai would stay with friends and work in their restaurant once she got out of jail.
Shuai has burned through her savings fighting the charges, and Pence said a fund has been set up where supporters can donate to help Shuai post bond and pay her legal bills. She said women’s groups, church groups, students and others have already offered support, and a website has been set up to accept donations toward Shuai’s release and defense.
"There has been an outpouring of support for Miss Shuai not only from throughout this state but throughout this country and internationally," Pence told reporters after the two-hour hearing in Marion County Superior Court.
Even if she’s released, Shuai faces an immigration detainer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, agency spokeswoman Gail Montenegro confirmed Friday. Attorney David Cook told the court that meant Shuai would have to be interviewed by ICE, which would then determine whether she should be held, released on bond, or ultimately deported.
Shuai’s case has drawn attention from dozens of medical and women’s rights groups, including the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which provided an attorney to help defend her. Some 80 organizations and individuals, including the National Organization for Women and the National Alliance for Mental Illness, have filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting her.
Some advocates claim that convicting Shuai could set a precedent by which pregnant women could be prosecuted for smoking or other behavior that prosecutors or police might deem a danger to the fetus. They say that could discourage women from seeking prenatal care.
Prosecutors say they have no intent of enforcing the law in that manner. They argue that Shuai intended to kill her fetus along with herself, and under Indiana law the intentional killing of a viable fetus is murder. Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said Shuai wrote in a note to her former boyfriend saying she was "taking this baby," which he said proves her intent. He also pointed out that higher courts have upheld the murder charge.
Shuai’s attorneys argue that the law was intended to protect pregnant women, not to be used against them. They say she was depressed and desperate, and was attempting suicide, which is not a crime. "How can it be legal for anyone in Indiana to attempt suicide, but not for a pregnant woman?" Pence said.
Curry said he didn’t begrudge Shuai’s attorneys taking steps to raise money for her defense. "What I do take exception to is the idea that this is some kind of broad-based attack against women, or that we’re prosecuting the defendant for attempting suicide," he said in a phone interview.
Defense attorneys also argue that prosecuting a woman based on the outcome of her pregnancy violates her constitutional rights to due process, equal treatment and privacy.
Shuai was 33 weeks pregnant when she ate rat poison on Dec. 23, 2010, after her boyfriend broke up with her. Shuai was hospitalized, and doctors detected little wrong with the fetus’ health for the first few days. The premature girl, Angel Shuai, was delivered by cesarean section Dec. 31, and she died from bleeding in the brain three days later after being removed from life support.