A Rikers Island corrections officer looked confused on Wednesday morning when a group of Chinese immigrants – trailed by a crush of reporters from local Chinese news outlets – arrived to pick up an inmate who had been in the jail for four years.
“Four years, really?” the guard said, leaning back and wiping his hand over his face skeptically, perhaps because Rikers Island is primarily intended for short stays, with most inmates staying no more than three months.
But Li Ying, 26, a Chinese immigrant who is charged in connection with the shaken baby death of her daughter Annie, has remained in the jail since her arrest in March 2008. She is awaiting trial along with her common-law husband Li Hangbin, who is also charged in the case, which was the subject of an article in The New York Times in January.
Ms. Li was released on bail from Rikers Island on Wednesday, after a Queens judge reduced her bail on Tuesday from $250,000 to a $10,000 bond.
The Lis, who are scheduled to be tried together in a Queens courtroom – a date has not been set — were arrested on manslaughter charges on October 22, 2007. Prosecutors say Mr. Li, 27, inflicted horrific injuries upon Annie. He is charged with second-degree murder, and if convicted, faces 25 years to life. He remains in jail.
Ms. Li is charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child, accused of failing to promptly call 911 when Annie became unconscious. Her charges carry a maximum 15-year sentence.
The Lis say that they called 911 immediately after the 2-month-old Annie lost consciousness while being fed. She was rushed to a hospital and died there five days later.
After a five-month investigation, the Lis were arrested and have remained on Rikers Island while their trial has been delayed because of language differences, changes in lawyers and extensive court hearings.
In the past year, prosecutors have several times offered Ms. Li a chance to be set free if she pleads guilty to the charges. She has refused the plea deals, she said, because she is adamant about proving her innocence in court.
The case has generated intense interest in the Chinese immigrant community in Flushing, where the Lis lived with Annie. Michael Chu, a Flushing travel agent and local activist, helped raise money and awareness for the couple. He used some of the contributions to pay Ms. Li’s bail.
According to the charges, Annie most likely died from the trauma of shaken baby syndrome, which occurs when a baby is repeatedly and violently shaken, causing brain damage. Her injuries included a massive skull fracture from two “non-accidental” blows that also caused brain damage, hemorrhaging and eye injuries, as well as two broken legs and a fractured rib that had not fully healed, according to prosecutors.
The Lis’ lawyers argue that Annie’s autopsy showed no fractures to Annie’s spinal cord and neck, and they say they hope to prove that the child suffered from osteoporosis imperfecta, a condition that can cause weak bones.
When Ms. Li was arrested, she was pregnant with a second daughter. She gave birth to the child while incarcerated and named her Nianni, whose name in Chinese means “Remember Annie.” Nianni has remained in the care of a friend of the Lis’, Zhou Meizhen, 59, who has been taking Nianni regularly to visit Ms. Li in jail.
After her release on Wednesday, Ms. Li was taken by Mr. Chu and Ms. Zhou to pick up Nianni, who is now 3, at a Flushing day care center. Then they headed to Mr. Chu’s travel agency in Flushing, which has become a headquarters for supporters of the Lis who believe the couple’s poverty, lack of connections and unfamiliarity with the United States justice system made them vulnerable targets for prosecutors.
Regarding the supporters, Ms. Li said, “I don’t know what I would do without them — I am so touched by how much everyone has done to help me.”
She called her mother in China and sat with Nianni on her lap and ate a traditional Fujian meal of rice noodles topped with two hard-boiled eggs, a dish meant to symbolize overcoming hardships.
Ms. Li said she would begin working immediately at a nail salon to help support Nianni and pay her debts. Tears came to her eyes when she said she hoped to visit Annie’s body, which is buried in a small pine box in a mass grave on Hart Island.
Asked why it took so long to get her bail reduced, she said, “It’s not fair — why did they take until now to look into my case?”