For most of us, life is full. We're busy, too busy, trying to fit in all the things we have on our to-do list every day. We're running, on the go, and wishing we could downsize, de-clutter and make life simpler. Bruce Lisker has the opposite problem. After 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he is building a life for himself one little bit at a time. Today, he added one more "first" to a small list of everyday things that we all take for granted.
"That was really cool," he said as he and his British-born fiancée, Kara, walked away from their polling place, "I VOTED" stickers firmly affixed to their chests. "Everyone was so sweet," Kara said. She, too, voted for the first time, having become a U.S. citizen in a ceremony several months ago at the LA Convention Center. They stood at adjacent voting booths, their printouts by their sides as they inked their ballots. "I'm proud to have been asked what my opinion is," Lisker said, smiling broadly. "Proud to have a voice. It's one of highest honors, one of the best things about this country."
He doesn't think it's fair that prisoners cannot vote. He says that there are 170,000 people who pay California state tax when they purchase items in prison. "Not letting them vote is taxation without representation," he says.
Early on in the process of deciding for whom he would cast his vote in the governor's race, he thought there was no way he would vote for Jerry Brown. "His office tried to rekindle this nightmare that justice had at long last extinguished," he said, referring to a last ditch attempt by the Attorney General's office to send him back to prison on a technicality that was quashed by Federal Judge Virginia Philips a month ago. "But in the end, I'm convinced that he is the best candidate and the one that will be the best for California and that's why he got my vote. You've got to look at the big picture here."
Indeed, Lisker never disappoints when it comes to showing what he's made of, despite the cards he was dealt.
The past few months there have been other "firsts." He cashed his first paycheck, $87.00 for a day's work. He's been working for about six weeks. "I've started getting regular checks." he says. "I'm on the up and up now, working three days a week at Archival Film Restoration in Larchmont Village." He's doing a little of everything, getting trained in the film lab on a huge contact printer but also making film deliveries, cleaning up and decorating the office, hanging pictures ("Most people at work don't have a sense of how to hang pictures. You have to leave some white space"), clearing brush out in the front parking lot, bringing in design ideas for re-cladding the building and generally making himself useful. "I do a lot of different things there," he says. "Whatever they need."
The other two days a week, he's in his second semester at Santa Monica Community College. He takes a class in Argumentation and two courses online: Advanced Composition and Web Design using Dreamweaver. His first presentation to the Argumentation class was a very personal speech against the death penalty. He spoke from the heart: if he was only a few months older at his trial--18 and not 17--he could have been tried as an adult for his mother's murder and sent to death row when he was convicted.
The memory of his trial was fresh in his mind for several reasons this past month. He and Paul Ingels, the private investigator who was convinced of his innocence and worked tirelessly for years to get him freed, gathered recently with some friends and CBS staff to watch Bruce's story told on "48 Hours."
Sitting and watching the tale unfold, "a million things went through my mind," Lisker said. "The catharsis of having passed through it. The sadness that comes from seeing the toll it's taken. As you watch it on TV you can almost separate yourself and see it as someone else's story. I had tears in my eyes for most of it. It was very emotional. Paul and I were both teary-eyed...I got 450 facebook messages of support that started as soon as it aired on the East Coast. People were outraged at what happened to me."
A few days later, Lisker sat across from Detective Andrew Monsue in the office of his lawyer, Bill Genego. Monsue was being deposed in the civil suit Lisker filed against the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles for what Lisker claims was a case based on lies and bungling that put him in prison for a crime he did not commit. He hadn't seen the detective in years. "He claimed to still be utterly convinced I was guilty," Lisker said. "But it was good to sit across from him and take it in stride. I'm not the one who did anything wrong."
While things are falling into place for Lisker, "I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop in an outstanding legal battle," he said, referring to the March court date of his civil suit. "I'm not sure why it should be a battle. I should be compensated for what happened to me."
But Lisker is trying hard to leave the past behind and savor the future. He and Kara have decided to get married, and she now wears a beautiful ring on her left hand--"It's Dorka's," she said proudly, mentioning the name of Bruce's mom. "We decided a long time ago," Lisker said. "I had to ask Kara's son for permission. I got down on one knee and he gave me his blessing. For a long time we didn't tell anyone, only strangers--waitresses and stewardesses. There's no date set yet. Sometime this coming year."
As they walked, hand in hand, to the car after voting, Lisker gave Kara his ballot stub. "Let's put this in our memory box," he said. "It's very special."
Photographer Iris Schneider is following Bruce Lisker as he returns to society. He was released from prison in August 2009 after 26 years.