An Innocent Man's Odyssey and a Good Cop's Downfall
More than three years ago, TalkLeft asked whether Bruce Lisker, who was convicted of killing his mother, is innocent. Some of the jurors in his trial, having heard about new evidence in his case, were questioning his guilt, as was the prosecutor who tried the case.
Lisker was convicted a quarter of a century ago. Two years ago, a federal magistrate held a hearing, listened to evidence, and produced a 57 page report concluding that Lisker's evidence of actual innocence was so strong that he should be granted an exception to the one year period that inmates have to pursue federal habeas corpus after a state conviction becomes final. The magistrate decided that the evidence against Lisker was so weak that no reasonable jury, hearing all of it, would find Lisker guilty. The strongest evidence against him -- multiple confessions given by the frightened teenager during prolonged interrogations -- had little probative value. [more ...]
[U.S. Magistrate Judge Ralph] Zarefsky dismissed Lisker's various confessions, suggesting they were attempts to minimize his time behind bars. He noted that his admissions were inconsistent and contained little or no details about the crime. Of the scant details that Lisker did offer, he said, some were in conflict with the facts.
This is what Lisker originally told the police on the day of the homicide:
Lisker told police that he found his mother bloody and near death in the entry hall of the home. He said he saw her in that condition from two windows at the rear of the house. Because the front door was locked, he said, he had to break into the house through the kitchen window.
Jurors were told that Lisker could not have seen his mother from the rear of the house and that bloody shoe prints in the house could only have come from Lisker.
Experiments, first done by Times reporters as part of a seven-month investigation into the case, proved that Lisker could have seen his mother from the window, according to testimony by experts from both sides.
Testimony from an LAPD analyst and an FBI expert also undermined the prosecution's contention that only Lisker's shoe prints were found at the scene. A bloody print found in the bathroom of the Lisker house was proved not to have been made by Lisker's shoes, they said. Additionally, that print appeared to match an apparent shoe impression on the victim's head, according to the LAPD analyst.
The prosecution tried to get around the new shoe print evidence by claiming that two LAPD officers might have stepped in the blood, leaving their own shoe impressions at the scene. That explanation seems preposterous, particularly as an explanation of a print found on the victim's head. Magistrate Zarefsky concluded that the officers weren't credible.
The lead detective on the case, Andrew Monsue, made up his mind immediately that Lisker was the likely culprit.
He knew that Lisker did not get along with his mother and had a history of drug abuse.
Monsue arrested Lisker that day and focused his efforts on proving his theory correct rather than conducting an impartial investigation.
Zarefsky was also critical of Monsue. Specifically, he found that the detective inexplicably dismissed another "likely suspect" who lied about his whereabouts at the time of the murder, admitted being in a knife fight on the day of the crime and acknowledged going to the victim's house and talking to her the day before the slaying. That suspect, Michael Ryan, who had a long history of violence, later killed himself. Phone records from the Lisker home show that a call was made minutes before the murder. The number matched that of Ryan's mother, except for the last digit and the area code, which wasn't dialed.
"The evidence here suggests no reason why Ryan should have been considered 'cleared,' " Zarefsky wrote.
Zarefsky concluded that the case against Lisker had been "effectively dismantled." Months later, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips upheld Zarefsky's recommendation, but that victory completed only the first stage of Lisker's battle. He would be allowed to proceed with his habeas petition despite the missed deadline, but he still had to prove that his conviction resulted from a constitutional violation.
Lisker alleged that his lawyer violated his Sixth Amendment right to be represented effectively. He also alleged that a jailhouse informant who testified that Lisker admitted the crime "was actually working on behalf of police and had fabricated the confession." Lisker ran into another procedural hurdle when the court ruled that he had to present those constitutional claims to a state court before he could have them heard in federal court.
Another year passed as Lisker attempted to get his case heard in a California court. Late in 2007, the California Supreme Court ruled that Lisker had missed his chance to prove his innocence by bringing the claim too late. Lisker headed back to federal court after receiving that ruling, where his case is still pending.
All of this is background to today's story. Five years ago, before the new court proceedings began, Lisker complained to the LAPD that he had been framed by Monsue. In the course of investigating Lisker's complaint, Jim Gavin, a lieutenant in the LAPD internal affairs department, discovered the bloody shoe prints that did not match Lisker's shoes. The conscientious cop took that evidence to his boss, Mike Williams, who told him to stop investigating. Williams promised to take the new evidence to the district attorney's office but never did.
Not wanting to be part of a cover up that would keep an innocent man in prison, Gavin gave the information to Lisker's lawyers and to the Los Angeles Times. For that, Gavin paid a price.
After articles mentioning his role in the case appeared in The Times, Gavin said he was charged with official misconduct for leaking confidential information, threatened with a criminal charge, transferred out of internal affairs against his will and slighted in his annual performance evaluation. He said his wife, an LAPD sergeant, was also transferred against her will, given a new work schedule and harassed by co-workers and superiors.
Williams, on the other hand, was promoted.
Gavin has sued LAPD for retaliation. His trial started last week and will probably go the jury next week.
Meanwhile, Lisker remains behind bars, his fate uncertain.
(Details and quotations about Lisker's case are drawn from LA Times articles that are archived at Lisker's website.)
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