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Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Li Hang Bin Shaken Baby Syndrome Case

     In 2007 Li Hang Bin and his common-law wife Li Yang, immigrants from the Fujian Providence in China, resided in the Flushing section of Queens, New York. Just after midnight on October 22, 2007 Mr. Li called 911 to report that his two-month-old daughter Annie had become unresponsive and had turned blue. The infant arrived at the emergency room thirty minutes later with a fractured skull, brain and eye injuries, two broken legs and a fractured rib.

     According to the baby's 23-year-old father the unhealthy infant had been ill with a fever. On the night in question Mr. Li said he found Annie pale and unconscious. In his attempt to revive his daughter he accidentally bumped her head against a table. It wasn't until after the baby had turned blue that Mr. Li called 911. Five days after the infant's hospitalization Annie died.

     The forensic pathologist with the New York City Medical Examiner's Office who performed the autopsy ruled the baby's death a homicide by violent shaking and blunt force trauma. According to the forensic pathologist, the victim had all the signs associated with a shaken baby syndrome (SBS) death. The indicators included bleeding between the brain and the skull, brain swelling and bleeding in the retina. Pathologists call this the triad of SBS symptoms.

     In March 2008, five months after the baby's death, a Queens prosecutor charged Li Hang Bin with second-degree murder, and as a backup charge second-degree manslaughter. The prosecutor also charged Li Yang with a lesser criminal offense related to the baby's death. Both suspects were incarcerated in the city jail on Riker's Island. Fearing that they might flee to China, the magistrate denied them bail.

     Mr. Li and his 22-year-old companion insisted that the infant had not been violently shaken and bludgeoned to death. The case dragged on for five years during which time prosecutors offered the defendants plea deals involving lesser crimes and immediate release from jail. Li Hang Bin and Li Yang rejected the plea offers on the grounds they were innocent of any wrongdoing in the baby's death. Mr. Li demanded the opportunity to be exonerated at his trial. He said he was not going to admit to something he didn't do just to get out of jail.

     In January 2013, prosecutor Leigh Bishop, after dropping the charges against Li Yang, made her opening statement to the jury at Mr. Li's Queens murder trial. Prosecutor Bishop told jurors that the defendant had "violently, repeatedly, and with depraved indifference," slammed the baby's head into a hard object causing "abusive head trauma."

     Cedric Ashley, Mr. Li's defense attorney, blamed the baby's death on poor health. The lawyer said he would produce medical evidence that would explain the infant's fractured skull, broken rib and broken legs. Mr. Ashley said these injuries had been caused by a rare disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease.

     Over the next two weeks jurors heard testimony from a battery of medical witnesses on both sides of the issue. As is often the case involving dueling experts, the confused jurors settled for a compromise verdict. In February 2013 the jury acquitted the defendant of second-degree murder, a crime that carried a sentence of 25 years to life. However, perhaps because of the severity of the victim's injuries, the jurors did not acquit the defendant of criminal homicide. They found Li Hang Bin guilty of second-degree manslaughter, the lessor offense.

     Mr. Li, who had been in jail almost five years, faced a maximum 15 year sentence. He expressed shock at his conviction and promised to fight to clear his name. 

     On March 4, 2013, Justice Richard L. Buchter of the State Superior Court in Queens sentenced the defendant to 5 to 15 years in prison. The Chinese immigrant continued to maintain his innocence.

     Infant death cases are problematic because of the difficulty of ruling out the possibility of nonviolent, natural sources of the SBS symptoms. There are several forensic pathologists around the country who regularly testify for the defense in SBS homicide trials. A forensic pathologist who commented publicly on the Li trial said he was between 80 and 90 percent certain that this case involved a SBS caused death. 

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