Bruce Lisker speaking to Loyola Law School's Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic. Photos by Iris Schneider.
It's kind of chilling to listen to Bruce Lisker talk about the day in 1983 that his mother was murdered. The tale is harrowing, as he recounts discovering his mom's body, bloodied and bludgeoned. Hysterical and just 17, he called 911. "I was naive, and trusted in the system," he says, "and that is what worked against us."
The detectives arrived and interviewed him while his mom lay dying, but there was a point, he says now, when he should have realized that his troubles had gone from bad to worse. He was asking to go to the hospital with his mom. She was still alive and he was worried and frantic. Instead, he was told to calm down, put into handcuffs and deposited in the back of a police car. His mother went to the hospital without him, and he never saw her again. He says it dawned on him much later that day that he was no longer just a witness but instead was being treated as a suspect in what would become the murder of his own mother.
Lisker was talking about that day when visiting a class of law students this past November at Loyola Law School downtown, invited by their professor, Chris Hawthorne, who runs the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola. Hawthorne had introduced Bruce as someone who can speak firsthand about the mistakes that our system of justice sometimes makes with juveniles, an important lesson for young law students to learn. He was convicted in the murder of his mother, and incarcerated for 26 years while he fought for justice and his freedom. "I never stopped working on my case," he told the students. "Hope is dangerous...you can't keep it too close, but you can't let it go either because that is when you start to die." He finally won his freedom in 2009 when his conviction was overturned and he was a free man.
Since his release, he has gotten married, and created a life for himself and his wife. He has found it difficult to earn a living ("|'ve made about $7,000 in the 6 years since my release," he estimates), and filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the LAPD and the detectives who he says lied and fabricated evidence to convict him. A tentative settlement has been reached which is going to be presented to the City Council for consideration after the first of year, so he can finally stop worrying about his future and begin to move on with his life.
While he waits, Lisker has continued to speak to law classes and teach writing through the non-profit "InsideOUT Writers" at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall. On a recent Saturday, he started off his class of five girls by telling them, "aside from being married, this is the most rewarding thing in my life." He began the class by asking the girls to think about treating others better than they were treated, or to give better than they get. "I'm trying to teach them about love and respect," he said, continuing to say that it's so important to teach them to be their best selves.
He spends the next hour and a half talking and listening, trying to respect their privacy, and allowing them to share their thoughts and stories. "I'm a sucker for optimism," he says, and having gotten to know him over the past six years, I have to agree. It's kind of amazing how mellow and calm he is, rarely exhibiting anger or bitterness. He tells the girls a quote he likes: "It's impossible to travel the road to peace without first crossing the bridge to forgiveness." He says that he understands what they are going through, having been incarcerated himself. He's full of sayings that might sound like cliches, except he, and these girls, know better than most: Life is not meant to be easy, he says, but it's 10 percent what happens to us, and 90 percent what we make of it.
After chatting with one of the girls, he tells her: "There is nothing but potential for you from here on out. You're gonna soar!" She is about to be released and has plans to start community college. The girls say that all week long they look forward to Saturday, and their time with "Mr. Bruce." He encourages them to read their writing aloud. Sometimes they need coaxing. But then, they stand up and this is what comes out:
Even when it seems that everything around me gets destroyed.
I know I'm young
I'm still just a seed in the dirt
Growing to be a big tree is my main priority
I'm getting there day by day
My potential is there
I just gotta have hope.
As he leaves the building, Bruce reflects: "I love these girls. They are little souls who got trapped in some shit. They have work to do but they have all the potential to be absolutely amazing human beings."
And, with his help, he's hoping they stay on the road to amazing.
Lisker with girls at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall writing workshop.