A Suffolk Superior Court judge had refused to lower Marie Merisier’s $100,000 bail by a single dime. The Milton woman faces attempted murder charges for allegedly throwing her newborn baby into a Dorchester trash can, leaving it to a stranger to save the child’s life.
For more than two weeks after her February 26 arrest, Merisier remained at the South Bay House of Correction.
That’s when the private Massachusetts Bail Fund came to Merisier’s rescue, saying she needed help rather than incarceration. The group, which opposes bail philosophically, paid the $100,000 to set Merisier free, one of the largest bail payments the Bail Fund has ever made.
Bail Fund officials said Merisier was not getting basic hygiene needs met and needed more care than a prison could offer.
“We are a coalition of groups who represent formerly incarcerated people and those with incarcerated loved ones. We are the experts in incarceration and we assert that it is based in slavery and anti-Black racism,” said the Bail Fund’s new executive director Janhavi Madabushi. “The only investment Black & Brown communities get is more policing and prisons and we refuse to accept that and in fact have solutions for it.”
Madabushi said the bail fund put up half the money; the rest came from partner organizations.
The nationwide protest movement spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has brought a flood of donations to all bail funds, including Massachusetts’, empowering them to pay much higher bails than ever before.
The Bail Fund opposes cash bail on principle, arguing that it discriminates against the poor by keeping them locked up before they’re even convicted of a crime. The only purpose of bail, they point out, should be to make sure defendants show up for trial — and the people they bail out overwhelmingly do.
At Merisier’s bail review on March 8, prosecutors explained that Merisier gave birth February 26 inside the bathroom of a man’s apartment, then stuffed the infant inside a brown leather bag. She then placed the baby, wrapped in cloth inside two double knotted plastic grocery bags, into the trash barrel. Video surveillance footage allegedly showed Merisier putting the bag in the trash.
A passerby heard the baby crying and summoned help from EMTs, who were nearby. The healthy baby was placed into the custody of the state Department of Children and Families.
Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Audrey Mark argued the crimes Merisier is charged with -- attempted murder and reckless endangerment of a child -- were so serious and the case against Merisier so strong that the high bail was justified. They also said she has no ties to the community, suggesting she might flee.
Her public defenders, Cristina Rodrigues and Connor Barusch, called Merisier’s treatment in jail “inhumane,” arguing she did not receive lactation equipment for a nursing mother as well as “the most basic hygiene items.”
At the March 8 hearing, Rodrigues made an impassioned plea to Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders to reduce the bail to personal recognizance. An interpreter translated the hearing for Merisier, who speaks Haitian Creole.
“Before you, your honor, is a defendant with no criminal record, no ability to pay, and serious worsening mental health questions,” she said, calling the high bail “lawless and immeasurably counterproductive and harmful.”
She described the conditions at South Bay, where Merisier, she said, was “effectively in solitary confinement.”
The case, she said, “raises an incredibly complex set of mental health questions.”
Rodrigues said Merisier’s challenges were exacerbated by the “triple sword of poverty, cultural barriers, and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that introduced a shocking kind of social isolation and a tsunami of mental health consequences our society is only beginning to identify.”
Because of the pandemic, Rodrigues said, Merisier lost her job as a restaurant cook and her ability to meet her own basic needs and those of her impoverished family back in Haiti.
At the hearing, Mark said that when police first questioned Merisier she denied she was the woman on the videotape, but then admitted it. She said she thought the newborn was dead. Later, when she was questioned by police at Boston Medical Center, “she blurted out that the baby wasn’t crying. She thought he was dead and that she didn’t have stuff for the baby anyway,” Mark said.
She has no local ties, Mark said, increasing the risk that she would flee before her trial. Her mother lives in Haiti and her father lives in Orlando, Fla.
Sanders denied the request for no bail after a 30-minute hearing, agreeing with prosecutors.
Late last month, Suffolk County District Attorney, Rachael Rollins visited the baby boy, saying she “was so happy to see nurses pampering, spoiling, and singing to, feeding, and generally pouring love and affection into this beautiful child.”
Rollins stressed that under the 2004 Safe Haven Act of Massachusetts, a parent can legally surrender a baby at any hospital, police station, or staffed fire station within seven days of birth without facing criminal charges.
“This situation did not have to happen,” she said. “But we need to make sure that parents of newborns know they have options if they feel hopeless, depressed, an inability to bond, or are having thoughts of harm to themselves or the child. Nobody should ever suffer in silence, but no harm should ever come to any child either.”
Mary McGeown, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: “When a child, especially the littlest among us, is mistreated by their caregiver, it shocks our sensibilities. And, at the same time, I don’t believe a mother would carry a child for nine months and place her baby in a dangerous situation because she wants to.
“Most often, there are deeper issues -- poverty, mental illness, substance use disorder, and/or domestic violence. We have a collective responsibility to reach out, offer services, and supports long before a mother feels overwhelmed and in crisis, and show her that there are alternatives,” McGeown added.
Mike Morrissey, cofounder of Baby Safe Haven New England, said since Merisier was arrested, the Boston-based group has distributed Safe Haven signs in Dorchester and Milton to let women know there’s an alternative to abandoning their children.
“This is the first actual abandonment in seven years,” he said. “We don’t like that these things happen. We respond immediately.”
The odds are good, he said, that Merisier will get her baby back: “I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t happen. I’m saying there is that distinct possibility.”
The Bail Fund has recently bailed out dozens of defendants facing serious charges and with long criminal records. At least one, Level 3 sex offender Shawn McClinton, allegedly committed new crimes after his release.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.