"It's like you're leaning on a building, and all of a sudden the wall turns around and you're in another world you can't get out of." Bruce Lisker was telling Jeff Stein about his experience with the criminal justice system when, at 17, he was arrested for his mother's murder.
I went with Lisker recently to the home of Jonathan Taplin, whose daughter Blythe works for the Capital Appeals Project, a non-profit law office in New Orleans which helps those on death row making their appeals in Louisiana. Lisker spoke to a group of Taplin's neighbors in support of Proposition 34, which would abolish the death penalty in California. After serving 26 years, 5 months and 4 days in prison, Lisker takes the rights he has earned as a now-free U.S. citizen very seriously and Prop. 34 is one battle that he has a stake in. The proposition's proponents have said that its passage would save money for California. They estimate that California will save $130 million each year if the death penalty is abolished, in part because the cost of incarcerating prisoners on death row is much higher than the costs of any other type of imprisonment.
Lisker's interest is far more personal. As someone who missed getting the death penalty because his conviction came 3 months before his 18th birthday and who was ultimately exonerated of the crime, he spoke about others wrongfully incarcerated. He said that the thought that there might be one innocent person wrongly convicted and sent to their death by the state was a mistake that we as a society could not afford to make. When I talked with Lisker about the death penalty, he expressed frustration that as a society we would put people to death to teach them that killing is wrong.
"It is far better to be given a life sentence with the ability to work and contribute to a victims' restitution fund. That way you are doing some good with your time in prison...Isn't it called the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation? We're not talking about releasing people but there should be an opportunity for correction. Otherwise we should change the name to the Department of Warehousing Humans."
He talked about how his situation, as a white prisoner with a small inheritance that allowed him to pursue exoneration, was far different from most prisoners who are usually poor people of color with very little funds at their disposal. James Clark, with Yes on 34, also addressed the group and asked for donations to help fund their campaign.
"Innocence is the number one argument against the death penalty," he said. "We are always at risk of executing an innocent person. Maybe this is something we just don't know how to do well enough."
Photo: Iris Schneider