Since May, Los Angeles high schooler Jeremy Marks has been in jail—essentially for filming a school police officer hit a 15-year-old. He'll be home for Christmas, though, thanks to a Google engineer who heard about Marks on Reddit.
A few weeks ago, the LA Weekly wrote a story about Marks and the unbelievable chain of events that led to his incarceration. Marks had been filming a Los Angeles Unified School District police officer engage in a scuffle with a 15-year-old at a bus stop (ostensibly because the kid was smoking a joint) when the police approached him and arrested him at gunpoint.
The 15-year-old—who was hit with Officer Erin Robles' baton and sprayed with mace—was released quickly. Marks was charged with "attempted lynching of a police officer," allegedly for yelling "kick her ass" during the fight, and put in jail. Here's one video of the fight (there's another here; both courtesy the Weekly):
But—as the Weekly pointed out—the other amateur videos taken during the altercation (of which there are many—welcome to the 21st century) show Marks quietly filming without saying or shouting anything. They also seem to show that Marks was filming out of the sight line of Officer Robles, despite her positive identification of the then-17-year-old as the student who yelled "kick her ass."
And yet Marks was charged with felonies (including "making a criminal threat") and was given a $155,000 bail by a superior court judge thanks to testimony from a "gang expert" that Marks was "affiliated with a gang." His mother, a part-time pool attendant, couldn't afford the $15,500 bail fee (the 10% fee that's kept by the bail bondsman), and Marks refused a deal (a guilty plea in exchange for "only" seven years), meaning that the teenager spent the next eight months in jail.
Until the Weekly article came out—and shot to the front page of Reddit, the link-sharing community with a strong civil-libertarian (and charitable) streak. It was there that Google engineer Neil Fraser learned about Marks, and decided to do something. He told the Weekly, in an interview for a follow-up article, that he was inspired by his experiences in Germany:
"When I was growing up, I spent several years in Germany - a country still traumatized by the Holocaust. One of the things I learned was that bad things can only happen if good people do nothing. I consider myself to be a good person, so I had no choice but to act when I saw something like this happening."
He contacted the Weekly, hoping to get in touch with Marks' family to talk about posting bail. From there, he was able to reach out to Marks' attorney. Within hours of the link being posted on Reddit, Fraser commented:
Fraser ended up putting in $50,000—a higher fee than usual, but under an arrangement that meant he'd get the entire sum back if Marks shows up to his court dates—and, with Celes King IV, vice chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality of California and owner of a bail bond company, posted the necessary $155,000. Assuming everything went fine, Marks arrived home yesterday.
And just to make sure his freedom isn't the only Christmas present, Fraser—who lives in San Francisco—went shopping for gifts that he sent to Marks' mother. It doesn't stop there, either: Fraser is putting up $1,500 for a defense lawyer, a sum that Google has agreed to match. Here's what he wrote about the incident:
The whole experience of what happens pre-trial was a real eye-opener. One of the things which I learned was that if one uses a bail bondsman in the US they require a 10% payment which they keep even if you do show up for court. That makes getting out of jail phenomenally expensive.
The alternative is to raise enough cash to pay the entire bail, which will then be returned after the trial. The amount of work it takes to liquefy investments and raise that sort of cash is ridiculous. If one were inside jail and limited to a few phone calls, it would likely be an impossible task.
What would you do if you unexpectedly ended up in an American jail with one phone call? Are you going to pick a lawyer at random from the yellow pages (assuming those pages still exist in the jail's copy)? Do you have family who will take charge of the situation? In my case I'm fortunate: I could just phone the consulate for one of Her Majesty's governments. Those pages are likely to still exist in the jail's phone book.