While attorneys on both sides claim partial victories, supporters of Hang Bin Li say they are “devastated” by the mixed verdict delivered last Friday, when a New York jury found Li innocent of murder but guilty of manslaughter in the 2007 death of his infant daughter Annie. The news was especially shocking because no one had expected a verdict so soon.
During nine days of testimony over three weeks, the jurors heard from nine medical experts for the prosecution, including the local medical examiner, a child-protection pediatrician, a pediatric ophthalmologist, a pediatric radiologist, two pediatric critical-care physicians, and a specialist in osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), a disease of the bones. All agreed that Annie had died from abusive head trauma. Many said shaking was involved.
Defense attorney Cedric Ashley opened his case last week by calling Dr. Zhongxue Hua, a respected medical examiner from a neighboring jurisdiction. I can’t find coverage of Dr. Hua’s testimony in the English-language press, but I’m told he said that Annie had signs of mild OI and unusual heart findings.
Ashley also called the Lis’ landlady Mrs. Zhou, wrapping up his case in a day and a half. Both sides made closing arguments on Thursday afternoon, and the jury returned its verdict the next day. An outspoken supporter of Hang Bin Li at the time—who has since removed her material from the web—wrote in an email:
Put yourself in the Jury’s shoes. If 9 Medical witnesses for the Prosecution kept denying something, but only 1 Defense Medical witness saying something else. Your mind is unsure, but common sense tells you, “How could all 9 people be wrong, and only 1 person is sober and correct?”
In a telephone interview after the trial, Ashley said his decision to call only one expert witness was not based on limited resources but on his opinion that, among the witnesses in this case, “only two persons had the expertise to determine the manner of death, and those were the forensic experts, the medical examiners.”
Ashley cautioned against drawing any lessons or conclusions from this “nuanced” case, which he said was not about shaken baby syndrome. “The prosecution threw shaken baby syndrome at this couple,” he said, “Our case was about accidental, non-intentional head trauma exacerbated by OI.”
The Li case has received daily coverage in three Chinese-language newspapers in New York, and periodic coverage in the English-language press. The New York Times quoted prosecutor Leigh Bishop’s saying after the trial that the verdict was “perfectly reasonable,” because “we didn’t have enough information about his mind-set at the time he inflicted the injuries” to prove murder.
Reporters Corey Kilgannon and Jeffrey E. Singer wrote about their conversations with the jurors:
Several jurors said that they felt an obligation to see Mr. Li punished for Annie’s death, but that they could not arrive at a guilty verdict on the murder charge because they lacked the evidence to decide that her injuries resulted from a depraved mental state on Mr. Li’s part, a finding required for guilt on that charge.
“We spoke up for the baby and said, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” one juror, Luisito Castro, said.
Ashley characterized the outcome as a partial victory. “He’s not facing 25 years to life,” Ashley told reporters. The manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 5 to 15 years in prison, and a minimum of 1 to 3 years. Li has already spent nearly 5 years in custody—4 years and 10 months—while waiting for trial.
The Lis have both denied that either of them did anything to harm Annie—and their community agrees. Their defense was paid for by donations from supporters, many of them other Chinese immigrants.
Hang Bin and Ying Li, and their community, were drawn unexpectedly into this arena, but the attorneys and medical experts at Hang Bin’s trial were seasoned veterans. Prosecution witness Dr. Carole Jenny, for example, is one of the major forces behind the relatively new medical-board speciality of child-protection pediatrics. A former prosecutor, Cedric Ashley is on top of the medical arguments, making him a rare defense attorney in this complex arena. Prosecutor Leigh Bishop—whose actress friend Katie Holmes made headlines in early January by stopping in at the courthouse to hear opening statements—was on the faculty at last fall’s Twelfth International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma. In 2007 Bishop successfully prosecuted Yoon Zapana, whose son Victor Zapana published an essay about his mother’s conviction in the November 27, 2012, issue of The New Yorker.
In the Zapana trial, as in the Li trial, the defense called a single medical expert while Bishop called a spectrum of medical specialists. I’m reminded of an email I received about a year ago, the reflections of a defense expert who found himself outgunned at a similar trial.
While I have heard of cases won with only one or even zero defense experts, I think it’s rare. I don’t know of any data on the subject, but my observation is that a defense team that includes the full range of specialists is a better bet, as illustrated by a series of exonerations earlier this winter and the Russ Van Vleck trial in 2011.
The Lis’ story might not be over with the trial. Michael Chu, the neighborhood travel agent who hosts the Hang Bin and Ying Li Rescue Committee in his business office, is now educating himself about the appeals process. “One thing is very clear,” he says, “We won’t give up easily.”
If you are unfamiliar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome in the courtroom, please see the home page of this site.