Category Archives: Hangbin Li

Fathers Caught in the Jaws of Injustice

The crush of the stories is getting to me, both the number of them and the cruelty.

Justice Richard L. Buchter in New York drove the point home last week during the sentencing of Hang Bin Li, the immigrant father convicted last month of manslaughter in the death of his infant daughter Annie. According to the New York Times coverage, Buchter called Li’s treatment of his daughter “shocking, sickening, sadistic” before imposing a sentence of 5 to 15 years.

The New York Post reported that Li tried to tell the judge he was innocent, saying, “I didn’t know how or why this happened. I wrote what my statements were to the police, three times of what happened.”

But the judge cut him off. “These are the same lies the jury rejected,” he said.

No one is listening.

Jason Curtis with his son Jackson -photo courtesy the Curtis family

Jason Curtis with his son Jackson
-photo courtesy the Curtis family

And the tragedies keep coming. Jason Curtis in Iowa, for example, was convicted last month of first-degree murder in the death of his son Jackson, 5 months old when he quit breathing during a nap.

Curtis’s story was simple:  He was at home with the baby while the child’s mother was at work. He thought Jackson was asleep, but when he checked on him mid-morning, he found the boy unresponsive. He immediately dialed 911.

Doctors found no bruises, abrasions, red marks, or fractures, but bleeding and swelling inside the boy’s skull convinced them he had been assaulted—more than once.

Like many children diagnosed with shaking injuries, Jackson had a complex medical history. He had been prescribed a series of anti-biotics and anti-fungal medications, and he had been hospitalized at the age of three months for failure to thrive.  On the day he quit breathing, he was being treated for a respiratory infection. Autopsy revealed a large chronic subdural hematoma and multiple small rebleeds.

“Every time they gave him a new medication, he got sicker,” says Roni Hays, Curtis’s aunt, who also points out that during ten doctor visits over Jackson’s five months of life, not a single medical record noted evidence of abuse.

threesleepEven one of the prosecution experts testified that nothing in the child’s brain could “unequivocally” be considered evidence of trauma. Daily trial coverage in the local newspaper, no longer on line, included the testimony of defense experts Dr. Waney Squier and Dr. Peter Stephens, who disputed the abuse diagnosis.

Prosecutor Matt Wilber told reporters after the verdict that his office had targeted Curtis from the beginning, because of a “prior child abuse conviction.” Patty Parham, another of Curtis’s aunts, told me that a couple of years ago both Curtis and the children’s mother had taken plea bargains on the advice of their public defenders, when their four-month-old daughter was found to have a fractured arm and clavicle. Curtis pled guilty to child endangerment and the girl was returned to her parents. (If you assume all plea bargains equal confessions, please see this posting.)

Jackson Curtis

Jackson Curtis

“Jason would never hurt a child,” Parham insists. “If you ever saw Jason with his kids you’d know it. His children are everything to him.” Friends and relatives commenting on his petition site concur. A former supervisor of Curtis’s at an adult care facility wrote that Jason “always gave dignity and respect to our residents.”

In Ohio, meanwhile, another father has been convicted of shaking his  son to death, in a murky case full of pre-judgment and miscommunication. Brandon Wilson reported that some weeks before his son quit breathing, the 10-month-old had fallen down several stairs, and then later had fallen from a shopping cart at a local store. The parents had taken him to an urgent care facility because of continued vomiting, but that was still weeks before his medical crisis. In a taped police interview after the child’s death, detectives insisted that something must have happened just before the boy collapsed, and that’s when Wilson “acknowledged that he had shaken the baby.”

The police heard a confession to shaking, but his words as reported sound to me more like an attempt to revive a non-responsive infant. The Portsmouth Daily Times coverage reported this impression from the tape:

Earlier in the interview when Wilson began to acknowledge that he had shaken the baby somewhat, Wilson said – “But I was not shaking that baby to hurt the baby or anything like that. I was just concerned about—you know what I mean? It was just—he was limp. It seemed like he was dead already when he was laying there.”

Later in the interview, he reiterated – “Well, I don’t really know how—I was not shaking him, like, really forcefully, but I was just trying to get him to wake up.”

Experts for the prosecution testified that children do not die from short falls like those Wilson had reported.

Annie Li, courtesy the Li family

Annie Li, courtesy the Li family

But I can’t help protesting:  What makes the doctors so sure these parents are lying? Their families seem to believe them.

Hangbin Li’s wife, the mother of his deceased daughter, asked the judge for leniency, calling Hangbin a good father and saying, “I was there that day, I saw everything. He didn’t intentionally hurt Annie.”

I had gotten to know Jason Curtis a little bit, through email, while he was realizing the state was really going to prosecute him for the death of his son. He was polite, thoughtful, and not a bit pushy. I was relieved when I heard that Dr. Squier was taking on his case—and I was shocked when I heard he’d been convicted of first-degree murder.  When his family members described him to me as patient and gentle, it only confirmed my impression.

I wish the child-abuse experts would stop and listen to the parents and caregivers, and to the people who know them.  I am not saying that children are never abused, or that shaking a baby is not dangerous. Indeed, I’m sure shaking a baby can be fatal.

Jackson Curtis

Jackson Curtis

But I’ve logged my time in the medical library, and in the courthouse, and I know that the pattern of cranial bleeding and swelling that now defines Abusive Head Injury does not prove abuse, even though a number of respected professionals seem to sincerely believe that it does. (See, for example, this article by intensivist Dr. Steven Gabaeff, which comes with a downloadable collection of original sources.) How many more cases like that of Tammy Fourman or Patti Kwan do we need before doctors slow down and listen to the evidence that a number of physiological processes can result in this cluster, not only violent assault?

I’ve seen two important changes in the arena over the past 15 years.

First, physicians and attorneys from outside the child-protection community have been drawn in, as they’ve encountered troubling accusations and convictions in their own practices. The result is a new wave of published research that questions the model of infant head injury that’s been winning for 30 years in the courtroom.

Second, the affected families are finding each other over the internet. Just now they are staggering under the weight of their individual burdens, but together they could become a voice loud enough to be heard.

copyright 2013, Sue Luttner

If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome and abusive head trauma in general, please see the home page of this web site.

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Quick Hang Bin Li Verdict Devastates

Annie Li, courtesy the Li family

Annie Li at one month, courtesy the Li family

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.

Annie Li in 2007, courtesy the Li family

Annie Li in 2007, courtesy the Li family

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.

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The Slow Wheels of Justice—Or Is It a Treadmill?

The trial of accused father Hang Bin Li opened in New York yesterday, and Ernie Lopez  in Texas has accepted a plea bargain, both developments reflecting the determination and strength of the professionals who retain their faith in the classic model of shaken baby syndrome. But first:

VSTVenous Sinus Thrombosis in the News

The health problems of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have brought venous sinus thrombosis (VST) into the headlines. Clinton was hospitalized earlier this month for anti-coagulation therapy, following the diagnosis of a clot with the potential to block blood flow from her brain. In an article in Residency Notes, Dr. Patrick Fitzsimmons speculates that the clot could be related to her fall in early December.

He writes that VST is associated with a number of “procoaguable states,” including trauma and inner ear infections, “but in at least 15% and perhaps as many as 30 or 40% of cases no underlying risk factor or etiology is identified.” He notes that the resulting back-up of cerebral spinal fluid can lead to raised intracranial pressure and cerebral edema, possibly leading to strokes, which “can even be hemorrhagic.” This analysis is consistent with news reports that Clinton’s blood clot could have been life-threatening.

Clot specialist Dr. Samuel Goldhaber reports in a video inspired by the news that clots like Clinton’s are “very rare,” estimating that his practice sees maybe six new cases a year.

Clinton’s prognosis is reportedly excellent—assuming the blood clot dissolves—largely because the clot was found during a follow-up MRI:  She never showed any neurological symptoms. Reporter Susan Donaldson James at ABC news quotes Dr. Brian D. Greenwald, medical director at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Center for Head Injuries, “She is lucky being Hilary Clinton — lucky that her team thought to do it.”

One of the reasons I find all this so fascinating is that one of the speakers at the Boston conference this past fall characterized VST as the new “courtroom diagnosis” for SBS.

from KatieHolmes.com

from KatieHolmes.com

Hang Bin Li Trial Opens

Today’s New York  Post coverage of Hang Bin Li’s murder trial focused on a surprise appearance in the gallery by actress Katie Holmes, whose publicist told the press she was there to support her friend Leigh Bishop, the prosecutor. Holmes reportedly arrived wearing no makeup and in the company of an unnamed companion, and stayed through Bishop’s opening arguments.

New York Times reporters Corey Kilgannon and  Jeffrey E. Singer, who have been following the Lis’ case for at least a year, filed their usual high-quality report covering the opening statements of both sides and the testimony of the first witness, a long-time friend of the Lis. They write:

Li Dongyong, who is now a sushi chef in Toronto, testified in Chinese through an interpreter. He said that he knew both Mr. and Ms. Li, stretching back to elementary school in Fujian Province in China. And he set the stage for the events, saying that on the day Annie fell ill, he rushed to the apartment in Flushing and saw that the baby was pale and feverish, but that he never saw Mr. Li strike or otherwise physically harm the child.

The parents decided to wait before calling 911, he said, but shortly after midnight, he heard them frantically trying to wake Annie, who had turned blue and unresponsive. He said he saw Mr. Li trying to rouse the baby.

The Lis say 2-month-old Annie deteriorated for unknowns reasons. The prosecution says Hang Bin Li shook and slammed his daughter to death.

The article in today’s Times Ledger (serving Queens since 1919) leads with the support Hang Bin  and Ying Li have received from their community, and it covers both the defense and prosecution positions regarding the dropping of charges last week against Ying Li.

This web site offers ongoing updates on the trial and links to the Chinese-language coverage.

Ernie Lopez: Guilty of Felonious Cleaning

In Texas last week, Ernie Lopez pled guilty to a lesser charge rather than face a new trial and possibly more time in prison. His 2003 conviction for aggravated sexual assault of a 6-month-old girl was overturned last year, after his case was featured in a series on changing child-death forensics that ran in NPRFrontline, and ProPublica. He was released last winter. This time, the prosecution was moving forward with a murder charge.

According to last week’s NPR report on the plea agreement, Lopez confessed to “injury to a child by causing serious bodily injury,” based on testimony from a polygraph expert that Lopez said he might have penetrated the girl while cleaning her up after a messy diaper. Lopez has denied making those statements in the past.

The plea agreement imposes restrictions on what Lopez may say about the case, so under the advice of his attorney he did not grant another interview with NPR. Joseph Shapiro’s coverage includes this observation, however:

Last year, Lopez explained that the first time he went to trial he believed innocent people don’t get convicted. Then he spent nine years in prison. This time, he would have had key medical experts and a more developed defense. Yet he still faced the risk of conviction.

Shapiro also quotes attorney Heather Kirkwood, who has been working on the Lopez case pro bono for years, “I don’t think any one of us believes he would be convicted. But in these cases, there’s no guarantee.”

The Amarillo Globe-News offers a more traditional slant on the story, with the headline, “Amarillo man admits shaking baby before she died.” While the commenters on the NPR web site have been reasonably sympathetic to Lopez, the Globe-News comment section brims with vitriol at a presumed abuser. One writer scorned the prosecutor for not pressing a case he wasn’t sure he could win.

Globe-News reporter Russell Anglin offered more details about the plea agreement:

As part of the plea agreement, Lopez was required to admit to the state’s allegations and agreed that the state could prosecute him again if he ever asserts that he did not commit the crime.

Lopez’s attorney, Bill McKinney, declined to answer questions about the case but did allow himself the comment, “The child died of a clotting disorder.”

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Charges Dropped Against Ying Li; Hang Bin Li Jury Selection Begins

Annie Li in 2007, courtesy the Li family

Annie Li in 2007, courtesy the Li family

The New York Post reports that manslaughter charges were dropped against Ying Li on Wednesday—the day before jury selection started in the trial of her husband Hang Bin Li, accused of shaking and slamming their infant daughter Annie to death in 2007. Ying Li was accused of not seeking help for the girl immediately after the presumed assault, which both Lis have maintained through four years of imprisonment never happened.

In the hearing to drop all charges, prosecutor Leigh Bishop said the doctors at Flushing Hospital had told her that Annie’s injuries were so severe that even immediate medical attention wouldn’t have saved the girl’s life. Reporter Christina Carrega quoted Bishop, “The people believe that they could sustain the endangering the welfare of a child charge, but since she spent four years in jail already, it would exceed the maximum sentence of one year if she was convicted.”

Supporters of the couple say that new medical evidence points to a genetic bone disorder as the cause of Annie’s meltdown. Hang Bin Li made headlines this past October, when he turned down a plea bargain that would have let him out of prison immediately.

“Ying’s dismissal is good news, but the battle is not over yet,” said supporter Michael Chu, who relayed this statement from Ying Li:

“They can lock us up for 50 years, but that’s not going to change the fact that Hang Bin and I are innocent… We’re powerless but we won’t shut up or give up. We’ll go all out seeking help to fight for our innocence!”

Jeffrey E. Singer and Corey Kilgannon at the New York Times published this excellent coverage last winter, and then provided more information in the spring, when Ying Li was released from prison after a bail reduction.

press release from 2008 detailing the charges against the Lis cited a witness who said the child was exhibiting symptoms five hours before the call to 911.

I don’t find coverage of the upcoming trial in an English-language Google search, but a blogger who supports the couple reports that three Chinese-language news sites covered the partial jury selection this week. The blog says the trial is scheduled to start next Wednesday, Jan. 9, when I hope it will be covered in the papers I can read.

January Update:  Hang Bin Li was convicted in early February, as described at this post.

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A Word From the Hangbin and Ying Li Rescue Committee

The second-degree murder trial of Hangbin Li, the immigrant father in the news last month for turning down a generous plea bargain,  has been postponed due to the storms in New York, but is now scheduled for later this week.

Mid-November update: The trial is now scheduled for January, 2013.

Hangbin Li and his common-law wife Ying Li were accused of shaking their daughter Annie to death in 2008. While the couple has spent years in jail, denying the charges and waiting for trial, their community has rallied around them. Now their friend Michael Chu has released a statement of support, which he hopes to distribute widely before trial, on behalf of the Hangbin and Ying Li Rescue Committee:

Shaken Baby Syndrome Accusations:
A Modern Day Witch Hunt?

Abuse of children is a real problem. People who commit the crime deserve the full fury of law. However, it is very important that evidence based science instead of the old SBS dogma be used in distinguishing cases where abuse actually occurs as opposed to trauma occurring for other reasons. In the Li’s case, 5 months after the passing away of their beloved daughter Annie, and still in deep bereavement over the loss of their beloved child, Hangbin and Ying were incarcerated, not knowing why.

Last month (October), which is almost 5 years after their initial incarceration, Hangbin was offered a plea bargain which was really tempting. This poor young man was offered the choice of immediate freedom at the price of his innocence. The mental torture he suffered was inhumane. “To be or not to be, that is the question.” He called family members, supporters and friends for advice. He asked me and my wife, “If I were your son, what would you tell me?” We cried. Oh God, what this man has suffered I would not wish my worst enemy to go through.

Finally, Hang Bin made a decision. While he almost ended up accepting the offer, a sudden idea struck him. As a victim of false SBS allegations, he felt that no one else should suffer as he did. From various literatures, he had learned that the number of people who have been wrongly accused of SBS is far more than he imagined. He started to ask himself these questions: Does this (false allegation/conviction) have to go on and on? Why do I have to admit to something I did not do? Do innocent people have to be accused and convicted of something they have not done and do nothing about it? On top of that, he has already lost Annie; he can’t afford to lose Ying and his second daughter Angela (he will be deported when the court releases him if he admits to any charge against him). They are the love of his life.

Baby Annie was born with mutated gene and had spent her first few days in the NICU. In a DNA test done on Annie’s tissue a couple of months back, defective gene relating to OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta) had been detected. “ It would be important to understand other inherited conditions in Annie’s family that might have created a situation that looked like shaken baby syndrome but was in fact, attributed to something else,” said Dr. Sessions Cole, director of newborn medicine at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

If one would just spend some time researching the SBS literature and talk to the wrongly accused in depth, he/she will be taken aback at the absurdity of the triad based SBS assumptions which the prosecutors resorted to in the conviction of many parents/caregivers. You can’t help but ask one question again and again: Given the wide array of solid scientific research that questions the validity of SBS theory, why does the judicial system still choose to turn a deaf ear to evidence based science? Even former supporters of the SBS theory such as the renowned Dr. Norman Guthkelch and Dr. Patrick Barnes, are now advising caution before choosing a SBS diagnosis. Dr. Guthkelch is credited with founding the syndrome in 1971.

How can the criminal justice system and law enforcement officers, hold high the banner of justice on one hand, but on the other, refuse to look at truth? How many ears must one law officer have before he can hear innocent people cry? How many wrongful imprisonments will it take till he knows that too many people have been falsely convicted? This is a very serious question that every concerned citizen should think about. The protection of children is a measure of society’s progress. There are people who abuse children. They should be given the gravest penalty that the law allows. But do we have the right to punish the innocent just because we know that there are heinous child abusers out there so that scarifying the innocent can be justified in the name of protecting children? A humanistic society should not allow that.

We need a rigid diagnostic protocol to be applied to SBS cases to prevent medical professionals from jumping to conclusions as soon as they see the 3 symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. Dr. Guthkelch says it’s time to get all interested parties together to get them to agree on what can be said with scientific certainty about shaken baby syndrome. How much longer do we have to wait until this is accomplished? The sword of Damocles could fall on anyone as long as the triad based diagnosis is allowed to reign supreme.

Hangbin & Ying Li Rescue Committee/Michael Chu

For more information on this case, see the New York Times coverage from last winter, at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/nyregion/what-happened-to-baby-annie.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&sq=li%20hangbin&st=cse&scp=1

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