Punish and repunish

Katha Pollitt reports bad news about the woman in Indiana who is being prosecuted for murder because she attempted suicide when she was 33 weeks pregnant.

The state Supreme Court has refused to review charges of attempted feticide and murder against Bei Bei Shuai. Just before Christmas 2010, Shuai, who was thirty-three weeks pregnant, attempted to kill herself by consuming rat poison after her boyfriend, father of the baby, abruptly announced he was married and abandoned her to return to his family. Rushed to the hospital, she had a Caesarean section, but her newborn daughter died after a few days of life. (Here’s my column on the case.) Despite amicus briefs from eighty respected experts and relevant medical and social organizations—the state of Indiana, for reasons best known to itself, will do its best to send Shuai to prison. Potential sentence: forty-five to sixty-five years. The only good news is that after spending 435 days in jail, Shuai is now out on bail.

Indiana? You’re being disgusting.


  1. iknklast says

    Of course, there are some places where suicide is a crime. Makes perfect sense – you’re dead, so they put you in the chair for killing yourself?

    Between this and the kid killed taking out the trash, I’m totally sick. How can such perversion be practiced in a supposedly rational species? (Answering my own question: we’re not rational; we only like to think we are).

  2. Suido says

    we’re not rational; economists like to think we are

    FTFY, pity I couldn’t fix Indiana much the same way.

  3. says

    Indiana? Bei Bei Shuai? Oh, I’m sure racism has nothing to do with this case. Nor misogyny, as they’re just enforcing the murder laws… couldn’t be a backdoor attempt to outlaw abortions.

    Sometimes reality is a nightmare that I can’t wake up from.

  4. Jeff D says


    Thanks for the “Indiana, you’re being disgusting,” instead of wording it “Indiana, you’re disgusting.” An important distinction.

    I live in Indiana, as I have since 1971, except for a sojourn of about 9 years in New York City. I know, all too well, the ways in which Indiana legislators (and, sometimes trial court judges and prosecutors) can behave like knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping, retrograde, misogynist or patriarchal bigots. At no time since the 1920s (when the KKK’s D. C. Stevenson essentially controlled state government) has politics in the Hoosier State been more fractious, poisonous, and dysfunctional than it is now. And that’s without even mentioning the influences of the Religious Right and the Tea Party types.

    I do not practice criminal law, but I have briefed and argued cases before the Indiana Supreme Court. In my opinion, what has happened in this tragic case is not Bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging, misogynist or patriarchial bigotry. There is no question in my mind that the familiar modern brand of abortion politics had a major impact on the prosecutor’s decision to charge Bei Bei Shuai with murder and feticide. But don’t blame the appellate courts, or the rest of the State, for how the legislators draft statutes or how elected prosecutors choose to use those statutes.

    (BTW, attempted suicide is not a crime in Indiana.)

    The Indiana Court of Appeals’s published decision is here: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/02081201msm.pdf

    I highly recommend reading Judge Riley’s dissenting opinion, especially the discussion (starting on p. 25) of the recent history of changes to Indiana’s murder statute and its separate feticide statute.

    The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal of Bei Bei Shuai’s motion to dismiss the murder charge against her, and reversed the trial court’s denial of bail. Bei Bei Shuai then went on to the Indiana Supreme Court and appealed the motion-to-dismiss issue (i.e., does the murder statute permit a woman to be charged with murder when she attempts to kill herself and her 33-week-old fetus by ingesting rat poison).

    The Indiana Supreme Court had two choices: The first choice was to “grant transfer,” which would allow the Court to reverse the Court of Appeals and write its own opinion, or to vacate the Court of Appeals decision and reach the same result (motion to dismiss denied) on different reasoning. The second choice was to “deny transfer,” which is what the Supreme Court does in the vast majority of appeals.

    In Indiana, we have one of the nation’s best merit selection systems for appellate court judges / justices, and as a result, the Justices on our Supreme Court (and also the judges on the Indiana Court of Appeals) have an excellent and well-deserved reputation. They are smart and principled. However, the Supreme Court Justices do pay attention to mundane things like State budgets, the State economy, and the cultural-political climate. Not surprisingly, this affects which cases the Supreme Court decides to handle by “granting transfer,” and also what the Court does with cases that it accepts. Here (and because Bei Bei Shuai has yet to go to trial), I suspect that the Supreme Court regarded this case as a hot potato that the Court need not touch at this time.

    I predict that if Bei Bei Shuai is convicted on any of the charges, the resulting appeal will eventually be addressed, on the merits, by the Indiana Supreme Court.

  5. Godless Heathen says

    Yep, my first thought too. Racism, anti-immigrant sentiment (she immigrated from China 10 years ago according to the Guardian), and, possibly, classism.

    I can almost guarantee that if she were white, US born, and middle- to upper-class she would be receiving sympathy instead of jail time.

  6. dubliner says

    This woman should fly to the UK or some other EU country immediately and claim political asylum in the face of such persecution. The Indiana prosecutor is obviously a barbarian.

  7. says

    Not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect? Maybe.
    But I think the more obvious reason is “not guilty because it’s NOT FUCKING MURDER.”

  8. lorn says

    Ironies look best when artfully stacked. They could go for the death penalty. Killer her, wait a year, dig her up, hold another trial and kill her again. If you’re into meta-irony they could acquit her in the second trial, hand the corpse twenty dollar and a new suit of clothes before setting it free. For meta-meta the corpse, represented by a team of lawyers, could sue the state for time lost at work.

    Life never gets strange enough for me.

  9. Jeff D says

    As Frank Zappa said, the United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced. Here, the feticide statute and the general murder (homicide) statute are worded broadly and vaguely enough that either one could be interpreted to apply to a situation in which (a) a pregnant woman ingests rat poison, which contains the blood thinner warfarin, (b) the woman is carrying a fetus that is at 33 weeks and therefore probably capable of surviving outside the womb, (c) the woman leaves a suicide note that she is killing herself and “taking the baby with [her],” and (d) the fetus / baby suffers a fatal brain hemorrhage within a short time after an emergency Caesarian delivery.

    It is extremely difficult to determine or prove what our state legislators intended to do in passing any particular statute or amendment, because (1) records of committee or floor debates either don’t exist or are not transcribed, (2) legislators are forbidden by law to testify about legislative intent, (3) only about 25 percent or our legislators are lawyers, and (4) the vast majority of our legislators do not read the bills for which they vote (They do what lobbyists or trusted staffers or party leaders tell them to do). Did the Indiana General Assembly “intend” to allow pregnant women to be charged with murder or feticide when they approved amendments in 1997 and 2007? It’s difficult to say.

    Intent to kill a fetus that was presumptively viable is unfortunately pretty easy to establish here, as a prima facie case (subject to a mental illness defense). If the woman had not left such a note, or if the fetus had been a conceptus 8 or 12 or 16 weeks old, it seems unlikely that she would have been arrested or charged.

    There are still several disputed questions of fact, on which the prosecution has the burden or proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The most important disputed issue is whether the fetus’s death was caused by the ingestion of rat poison, or by some other cause, such as a congenital defect. If the fetus had a congenital defect, then it may not have been “viable,” even at 33 weeks.

    I have met the prosecuting attorney, Terry Curry, who, for what it’s worth, is a Democrat and was elected in 2010. I also know Bei Bei Shuai’s defense lawyer, who is incredibly tenacious and smart.

    Is the prosecutor “obviously” a barbarian? In my opinion, no. Marion County (Indianapolis) has a majority Roman Catholic population, and county prosecutors (who frequently use the position as a stepping stone to higher elected office in state government) always keep one eye on the voters. Mr. Curry has a lot to prove at trial, and fortunately it won’t be easy for him to win a conviction. If Bei Bei Shuai is acquitted, or if her conviction is overturned, or if county residents come to a sensible consensus view (conviction or not) that she should never have been charged, then Mr. Curry’s career will probably be over.

    Here is a very good May 30 article on the case:

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