Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
By COREY KILGANNON and JEFFREY E. SINGER
Published: January 9, 2013
For almost five years, Li Hangbin, 28, has been jailed on Rikers Island, awaiting trial in the 2007 death of his 2-month-old daughter,Annie.
Prosecutors say Annie died from shaken-baby syndrome after being violently beaten and shaken by Mr. Li. But on Wednesday, as Mr. Li’s trial began in State Supreme Court in Queens, his lawyer, Cedric Ashley, grabbed his client’s left hand and held it aloft for jurors to see.
“These hands are not the hands of a killer,” Mr. Ashley said to the jurors. “These are the hands of a loving father.”
So began Mr. Ashley’s opening statement, which included claims that Annie’s health was already fragile because of a genetic condition. On the night of Oct. 22, 2007, he said, Annie had a heart attack. As Mr. Li rushed to revive her, his lawyer said, he inadvertently bumped her against a table. All of these factors contributed to her falling unconscious and eventually dying, Mr. Ashley said.
But the prosecutor, Leigh Bishop, presented jurors with a different chain of events, one in which Mr. Li inflicted horrific injuries upon Annie, causing her death by shaken-baby syndrome, which occurs when a baby is repeatedly and violently shaken, causing brain damage.
Mr. Li and his companion, Li Ying, 27, both Chinese immigrants, were at home with Annie that day when the baby fell ill. Then, just after midnight, the baby had heart failure and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where she died five days later.
The couple were arrested five months afterward and remained in jail while pretrial conferences and other proceedings dragged on. They were to be tried together, but last week, prosecutors dropped the charges against Ms. Li.
Mr. Li faces charges that include second-degree murder and, if convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life. He has declined offers from prosecutors to plead guilty to lesser charges and to be freed on the basis of time served because, his lawyer says, he adamantly denies guilt in the case and is confident he will be exonerated at the trial — one that both sides say will be determined largely by hospital records and testimony from medical experts.
Ms. Bishop, in her opening statement, said the medical evidence would help prove the shaken-baby death of a healthy “adorable infant” who was “alert and normal in every way.”
“What happened to baby Annie Li?” she said, and then began describing how she died of “abusive head trauma and shaken-baby syndrome.”
She told jurors that they would learn that Mr. Li “violently, repeatedly and with depraved indifference” slammed the baby’s head into an object, causing “abusive head trauma.” She said he hit her hard enough to fracture her skull.
But Mr. Ashley called Mr. Li a good parent and told jurors that, when it came to Annie, “the evidence will show how well-cared-for she was.”
The heart attack and then the bump, the lawyer said, “were eventually too much for Annie’s system.” He maintained that prosecutors were misrepresenting medical records to prosecute his client, whom he described as a naïve immigrant without the wherewithal to defend himself.
Mr. Ashley said there was an “absence of evidence” of any physical mistreatment of Annie, whose godfather was the prosecution’s first witness. The godfather, Li Dongyong, a close friend of the couple, was in their apartment for several hours before and while the baby became unconscious and went into cardiac arrest.
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.
There was a sudden switch of interpreters after Chinese-speaking spectators in the courtroom questioned whether the interpreter was translating testimony too loosely.
The prosecution also presented testimony from an emergency medical technician who took Annie to the hospital; he said he saw no evidence of a beating. There was also an unusual celebrity appearance by the actress Katie Holmes. Her publicist said Ms. Holmes knew the prosecutor and was there to watch her