Expert: Rat Poison Plea Deal Shows Case Was A ‘Failure’

Legal experts had argued if Bei Bei Shuai were convicted of her child's murder, then it would have had a chilling effect on women’s rights.

Bei Bei Shuai

Photo: WFIU-WTIU News

Bei Bei Shuai attends a panel at Butler University on Oct. 17, 2012.

Reproductive rights advocates are hailing a plea deal allowing an Indianapolis woman to avoid facing trial for murder after she attempted suicide while pregnant.

Bei Bei Shuai was more than eight months pregnant in December 2010 when she ate  rat poison in an attempt to commit suicide. Ultimately she survived – but her daughter died a few days after an emergency delivery. The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office then charged Shuai with murder and attempted feticide.

But with the September trial date right around the corner, the state announced Friday it would drop those charges in exchange for Shuai pleading guilty to a much lesser charge – one class B misdemeanor count of criminal recklessness.  She was sentenced to time served.

Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen says the nature of the plea deal shows the prosecutor’s case was a failure – and offers no encouragement to those thinking of pursuing similar cases.

“So I hope it can serve instead as a cautionary tale for any misguided prosecutors out there who might abuse government power by trying to police women during pregnancy in this completely inappropriate, unsupported way,” said Johnsen.

Some legal scholars have argued a conviction in the case would have empowered courts to prosecute women for engaging in any behavior – from smoking to driving – that could be considered a risk to a pregnancy.

Shuai’s lawyer Linda Pence says the plea deal is a comfort to her client. But beyond that, she’s not sure how much reassurance it offers.

“There are 92 counties, each with separate prosecutors, each with a – all elected, all political, each with their own views on what’s right and wrong,” said Pence. “They jump to conclusions. And if I were a pregnant woman, would I be scared to death? Yes.”

Pence says she doubts Shuai would have gone to the hospital after eating the rat poison if she’d known it would lead to a murder charge. Medical organizations have argued prosecuting women like Shuai could discourage pregnant women from seeking help for depression or addiction.

Sehvilla Mann

Sehvilla Mann has been reporting for WFIU since summer 2012, when she began working toward her master's degree in journalism at Indiana University. Her work has won three awards from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. A native of Urbana, Illinois, she is not sure she understands hills but enjoys looking at the ones around Bloomington.

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