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Jeremy Marks "Attempted Lynching" Case Reaction

Mother mission: Rochelle Pittman, with lawyer Mark Ravis, condemns her son's jailing.
PHOTO BY CINDY CLEGHORN

A Lakeview Terrace mother who can't raise the $15,500 bail for her teenager publicly slammed Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley's office after L.A. Weekly reported that prosecutors want her son, Jeremy Marks, to agree to 32 months in prison for "attempted lynching," resisting an officer and criminal threats. Yet Jeremy Marks touched no one.

Late last week, Marks entered his eighth month at Pitchess Detention Center, a hard-bitten adult county jail where he has been held since May 10. His mother, a part-time city swimming pool clerk, can't raise the 10 percent cash needed to pay a bail bondsman to post her son's $155,000 bail.

The weapon that Marks, a special needs student, wielded on the day of his arrest was his cell phone camera.

Marks was one of several Verdugo Hills High School students who last May videotaped a Los Angeles Unified School District campus cop grappling with and striking an unnamed 15-year-old student at a Metro bus stop. Prosecutors claim that as students jeered Officer Erin Robles, Marks yelled, "Kick her ass!" That led to the charge of "attempted lynching," which means trying to "incite a riot during an attempt to free a suspect from police custody."

Marks' mother, Rochelle Pittman, is challenging the prosecution — particularly Officer Robles' changing story.

After the incident, the DA piled charges on Marks, claiming he also grabbed for Robles' pepper spray when she dropped it. Yet Robles admits she doesn't know who grabbed at her spray, or why fellow campus cop Gilbert Rea, who wasn't present at the bus stop altercation, blamed Marks in an official incident report.

Robles' testimony at a preliminary hearing last summer reveals chaos, with several students taunting and shouting during the moments she now insists Marks called out, "Kick her ass!" Moreover, student videos of the incident show Marks standing out of Robles' line of sight.

Marks' mother says of the DA's case: "Someone, somewhere messed up — and now the only way the government knows to fix it is to use my son, Jeremy Marks, as an example. I am not going to stand by and let that happen!"

Marks was arrested at a McDonalds where he and his friends walked after taping the altercation at the Metro bus stop, at which about 30 students had been waiting to board. Witnesses say Officer Robles challenged the 15-year-old student — not Marks — for allegedly smoking either a cigar, joint or cigarette.

That modest problem quickly escalated to a violent struggle between the 15-year-old and Robles, who admits striking the boy with her baton.

Some students say Robles slammed the teen's head against the bus. At that point, Marks and other students got out their cell phones. Two YouTube videotapes show Robles ignoring police procedures for detaining a suspect as students begin taunting her. Marks can be seen quietly taping the altercation with his cell phone as angry students shout at and gesture toward Robles. Marks speaks only once and is not among the rowdy students who move toward Robles, yelling and laughing.

One student tells the Weekly that Robles "initially confronted the student over a cigar." After the 15-year-old cussed out Robles and grappled with her, "she slammed the student into a wall, threw him on the ground, took out her pepper spray, slammed him into the bus, broke the window out of the bus with his head, sprayed him in the face and slammed him into the bus some more," the eyewitness continues.

Angela Berry-Jacobs, Marks' initial defense attorney, and Verdugo Hills students allege that Robles slammed the 15-year-old's head against the bus window so hard that the glass popped out of its rubberized casement.

The Weekly's article "Jeremy Marks 'Attempted Lynching' Case," published online Dec. 9, set off a firestorm of debate. Pittman, calling herself "Mom on a Mission," jumped into the online comments to identify herself and seek the public's help in questioning the DA and paying for Marks' bail. The bail was hiked up by a judge to $155,000 after prosecutors insisted Marks is in a gang, although he and his mother deny that.

"It is my hope that his story will not only help get all charges against my son 'dropped' but also expose the types of injustices that are happening to the youth of America, our children, our future," Pittman writes.

Mark Ravis, whose firm took over Marks' defense Dec. 6, says the case "is vitally important because it illustrates the willingness of rogue police officers to criminalize youthful behavior and send kids to state prison, make career criminals out of them and to ruin their lives and the lives of their families." He declares, "The authorities want to send Jeremy Marks, a teenager, to state prison because his friend was holding or smoking a cigarette."

DA public information officer Sandi Gibbons can't discuss the case, but says, "The judge felt there was sufficient evidence to hold the defendant for trial on all three counts, which is what he is charged with."

Pittman says she transferred her son to Verdugo Hills High last year after he got into fights, was issued "truancy tickets" and was arrested for robbery at his original school. He has since turned his grades around, his mother claims.

A bail-reduction hearing is set for Marks on Jan. 4 and his trial is scheduled for Feb. 14. Marks faces three charges: resisting an officer, criminal threats and "attempted lynching." Initially, the teen faced seven years in prison. Prosecutors now are offering him 32 months in a plea bargain.

Zoe Rawson, an attorney who donates time to the Labor/Community Strategy Center, says Verdugo Hills High School students and parents have given her examples of "how students are being treated. ... There appears to be aggressive profiling of students that is observed as being related to race and appearance."

Rawson claims that one-third of the black students at the school were suspended during 2007 and 2008, compared with 6 percent of Latinos and 5 percent of whites. She called on LAUSD leaders to make a "formal response to community concerns about whether there is accountability for the policing issues that have been raised" in the Marks case.

Rita Addessa, an education advocate on the East Coast who is disturbed by Marks' eight-month incarceration among tough adults, points to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union showing how youths are funneled out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The study points to minority students, many with special needs, as those most vulnerable to the "push-out" trend.

On Monday, the Youth Justice Center in L.A. began a four-day, 50-mile march from the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar to the California Youth Authority in Norwalk, calling for an end to the push-out of students into the streets and jails. The marchers dedicated the first day of theit walk to Jeremy Marks.

Ravis says he wants the case to end justly and peacefully, but fears a potentially explosive situation as community anger grows over Marks' long stay in an adult jail, and the fact that a small problem — a 15-year-old smoking — mushroomed into a state prison case against 18-year-old Marks. Yet the 15-year-old who physically fought Officer Robles was released the next day.

"The community is standing by to see if the district attorney and other government officials are really going to continue to support these cops and the nonsensical charges against Marks, or do the right thing and dismiss the case and discipline the officers," Ravis says.

Pittman wants her son out of jail for Christmas and is trying to look ahead. "My son will not graduate with his class this summer, and will never return to Verdugo Hills High School," she says. But, "We'll look into getting his GED and he can go to Mission College to finish his education."

Reach the writer at katharine.russ@charter.net.

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