Photos of Bruce Lisker and his home by Iris Schneider
Bruce Lisker has spent much of his life waiting. At 17, accused of murdering his mother, he waited for his trial to begin. Then, he waited for the jury to return the verdict. Once convicted of the crime he knew he did not commit, he was incarcerated and he waited for justice.
Finally, after 26 years in prison, he was released in 2009, after an article and investigation in the Los Angeles Times reconstructed his mother's murder and cast strong doubt on his guilt and conviction. Then he waited for the judge to overturn his conviction. On August 13, 2009 Judge Virginia Philips did that. He was a free man, exonerated of his crime. After having spent more than half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, at 44 he was given $250 and sent on his way to begin making a life on the outside. When he went to prison, there were no cell phones, laptops, iphones, ATM's. There was no Google, Linked In, Wikipedia, no internet. Imagine trying to catch up with life as we know it now.
Lisker has done an amazing job of re-entering society. Though his job applications have gone unanswered and employment continues to elude him, after four years on the outside, he's taken classes at Santa Monica College, embellished the skills he taught himself in prison in web design, gotten married and is living happily with his wife Kara Noble. For someone whose growth was seriously hampered by conditions beyond his control, he has made a remarkable recovery as he tries to look to the future. He is working on website design for a few clients, volunteering his time with at-risk youth, helping prisoner friends navigate the legal system. He and Noble just moved to a house in the valley, and are busy making it into a comfy place where they can entertain friends and family. He tries to live without bitterness, aware that living with anger would only prolong his prison sentence while a free man, living outside prison walls.
I asked him how it felt to be making his home in the valley, where all his troubles began, but he went right to his happy childhood. "I remember when the air turned cold, and Christmas was coming." He is full of ideas for the new house, planning with his wife to repair and remodel. Although he expresses frustration at not being a full economic partner in the household, he has learned a lot about home repair by reading books and magazines and his skills will save them lots of money on repairs he can do himself.
Now he has added another to his list of hopes and dreams: budding entrepreneur. Lisker has been up nights working hard and recently launched his new business: Cellblock Services, an impressively designed and well thought-out social networking site for inmates that helps connect them to pen pals. For him, it's more than just a business. While in prison, he had a wide and strong network of friends and strangers who supported him, kept in touch and helped push for his release. He strongly believes that when prisoners have ties to the outside world it can lower recidivism. "Prison imposes isolation and that isolation becomes very paralyzing in terms of the things we need as human beings. You are isolated, spurned, demonized with no viable contact with the outside world. Then when you get out, you are thrust back into society with $200 in your pocket, and if you're lucky, here's your halfway house."
He feels that outside contact is essential if prisoners are to successfully adapt to society once they are released. But business is painfully slow. Unless he draws advertisers and clients and visitors to the site, it won't be successful. But he is hopeful that eventually he can perform a public service and earn a living at the same time.
While he has tried to move forward with his life, his wait for justice continues. He filed a civil law suit against the LAPD in 2009. His day in court has been postponed numerous times. His most recent court date was set for last June 4, but shortly before the day arrived, the city filed an appeal asking for summary judgement, which would have dismissed his case had it been granted. According to his lawyer Bill Genego: "The case is on appeal and we probably won't know anything for 16-20 months." Genego says that in cases of wrongful incarceration, this waiting game is typical. "Look at the case of the Central Park jogger," he says. "That case is older than Bruce's and the city (New York) is still fighting it. It gives you perspective."
Genego was talking about the case in New York of five black teenagers, 14-16, who were accused and ultimately convicted in the rape and assault of a jogger, a white woman who was found one morning near death in Central Park. Her case galvanized the city in the 1980's and set off a manhunt until five teens were found, accused and vilified in the press for "wilding," rampaging through Central Park, and leaving a defenseless white woman for dead. Their confessions, taken after hours of intense police questioning without a lawyer present, were ultimately essential in their own convictions. The fact that physical evidence did not link them to the crime became irrelevant and was ignored by prosecutors anxious to give closure to a city in turmoil and determined to end the frightening ordeal. The fact that another rapist was loose in the city was never investigated.
The boys were ultimately exonerated, after several served 7 years in prison, one even longer. Their exoneration happened purely through serendipity when the guilty man confessed to another prisoner after a chance meeting with one of the incarcerated teens--by then a young man--that caused him a moment of remorse.
An Oscar-nominated documentary, "The Central Park Five," made by Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah last year, documented the case. Among other missteps, facts which would have destroyed the prosecutor's case were ignored as the need to win a conviction and calm a panicked city moved things rapidly forward.
When years of your life are taken from you, $200 as you walk out the door to freedom seems to be a paltry starting point. Having to fight for an acknowledgement of your loss, and restitution, only compounds the injustice.
The recent news about the death of Herman Wallace, released after being incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, makes me continue to wonder how someone in America can be so mistreated in the name of justice. Wallace was released several months ago--6 days before he died of liver cancer--from a sentence of solitary confinement that put him in a 6' x 9' cell in Louisiana for 42 years. Forty-two years! I read Wallace's sad obituary and tried to make sense of it, tried to understand how this could happen in modern times. Wallace went to prison for armed robbery in 1971. That sentence changed one year later after he and two other men were accused by a prison informant (who received a lesser sentence in return for his help, and recanted his testimony decades later), in the fatal stabbing of a prison guard, and convicted by a grand jury. Sadly, even the wife of the guard who was killed doubted Wallace's involvement. A documentary about Wallace and the two other inmates at the Angola prison, "In the Land of the Free," was released in 2010.
A just society should be based on making amends for mistakes, not only those made by perpetrators but mistakes made by prosecutors as well. Bruce Lisker joins a long list of those waiting far too long for justice.