This week, Bruce Lisker was summoned back to the Van Nuys courthouse where his life changed. The last time he was there, in 1985, Lisker was on trial for the murder of his mother. Still a teenager, he was convicted, sentenced and sent to prison for more than 26 years before being released and ultimately exonerated.
When he returned to the courthouse for the first time since then, it was with a far different purpose: jury duty.
Lisker was excited. "It's an honor," he said as he pinned his juror ID card on his shirt, on the upper left side, just as the instructions specified. My thoughts immediately went to Lorraine Maxwell, the last juror to vote for conviction for Lisker. That decision has haunted her ever since. But Lisker exhibited no such worries. He was anxious to add his voice, opinion and life experiences to a jury panel. Having voted for the first time in November 2010, his name was added to the jury pool and a few months later he got the summons to serve. He filled it out carefully, being sure to answer in the affirmative to the questions about any prior convictions. "I answered yes, but indicated that the conviction was vacated by the court," he said.
On his lunch break, he strolled around the city government complex and drove around the buildings. A lot had changed. There is a pedestrian plaza at the center linking all the government buildings. The police station looks exactly as it did back then. I've noticed that Lisker always seems on guard when he's around police officers and it must have felt odd to stand in front of the building he knew so intimately as the place where his life took a very bad turn. When I asked him about it though, he said "It wasn't the building, but the people in it."
Around the back, Lisker pointed. "This is where (Detective) Monsue drove me that night. We drove up a ramp into the police station," he said, while his mother was speeding, via ambulance, to the hospital. He never saw her again.
He walked the halls looking for the courtroom where his case was tried, but the names were all different and he couldn't find Division F. A second courthouse has been built since then, and perhaps Division F is in the other building. He looked through a window and saw a long hall. "That's the path to the holding cells," he said. I asked him if any of the courtroom entrances looked familiar. "I don't know. I never came in this way. They always brought us in from the back...to avoid the paparazzi," he joked.
When I asked Lisker if he feels he is a different person than the one on trial, he said: "I am a different person. I'm a man. They were robbing a boy of his life. I'm a man who survived a robbery." As he walked the empty halls, Lisker reminisced. "I pictured my dad sitting on that bench during recesses and my mom gone. I got a chance to glimpse that solitude. That empty bench was a metaphor for what happened to him. Now the bench is empty for me." Lisker's dad passed away while he was in prison. He was denied a pass to attend the funeral.
Lisker's life has taken on some normalcy since his release and exoneration in August 2009. He's in his second semester at Santa Monica Community College, taking three classes. He's earning about $500 a week at a fulltime job in a film lab in the Larchmont area owned by a relative. Lisker and his girlfriend Kara are planning to mark the second anniversary of his release by getting married on that date, August 13.
He still maintains a positive outlook, despite the huge hole that 26 years behind bars has put in his life. He's trying to fill in the gaps, and doing ordinary things like serving on a jury really matter to him.
Back in the jury room, Lisker waited hopefully to hear his name called and finally it was, along with 34 others. But before they could enter the courtroom, word came that the defendant had accepted a plea bargain. Lisker was disappointed. "I almost cried," he said. "I want to do my civic duty, but not only that, it's a big privilege to serve."
Despite what happened to him, Lisker feels that the jury system works. "If there are cracks in the wall of a house you love, you don't abandon the house. You strive to improve it. I'd be a conscientious juror, a scrupulous juror. I'm not pro-crime by any means, not an activist for either side. The jury system has its flaws, but it's probably the best thing we have going in this country."
Around 3 p.m. the jurors were dismissed for the day, their service obligation fulfilled. "I was the only one who didn't clap when they released us for the day," Lisker said. "They gave me a certificate so that if I get called up again within a year, I can show that and I won't have to serve." He left no doubt that getting out of jury duty is not his objective. "I just won't show it to them," he said.
A few days later, reflecting on his day at the Courthouse, he had to admit: "It was a little surreal. But these days, everything is."