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New Light on a Distant Verdict

A CASE OF DOUBT

The evidence seemed overwhelming 20 years ago when Bruce Lisker was convicted of killing his mother in a fit of rage. Was justice served?

May 22, 2005|Scott Glover and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

The Times learned recently that the money may have been in Dorka Lisker's purse all along.

Three weeks after Bruce was convicted in 1985, a court clerk named B.J. Wilson conducted a thorough search of the purse before putting it in storage along with other evidence.

Wilson snapped on a pair of rubber gloves and dug through the black patent-leather handbag. She'd pull something out, then write it down.

"If there's a toothpick, I write 'toothpick,' " Wilson, now retired, said in an interview. "If there's a piece of gum. I write 'gum.' "

And so she did.

"3 emery boards, granola bar, 2 pencils, plastic bag ... ," reads her three-page handwritten list, which The Times found on microfilm in a court archive in downtown Los Angeles. "Red & orange magnifying glass, cookies in plastic wrap, Kleenexes ..."

Wilson placed an asterisk beside the last entry:

"Also found in brn wallet compartment: 5 $20.00 bills -- 1 ten-dollar bill, 1 five-dollar bill & 5 one-dollar bills. Total $120.00."

Told of the discovery, Rabichow said he was stunned.

"It was my habit to look through the exhibits personally. I never introduced something without looking through it, because you never know," he said. "Quite honestly, I'm a little bit upset with myself."

Visiting the Scene

When he retired from the district attorney's office in 2003, Rabichow didn't look back. He worked on his tennis game and wore himself out trying to keep up with his young daughter.

Rarely did he think of the hundreds of people he'd put behind bars during his 30 years as a prosecutor.

That all changed one afternoon in November, when he met with two Times reporters at a Carrows restaurant in Reseda to discuss the murder of Dorka Lisker.

Near the end of a three-hour meeting, Rabichow slipped on reading glasses and scrutinized a document one of the reporters had slid across the table. It was the criminalist's report on the mystery footprint.

Rabichow was speechless.

He flipped through a transcript of his closing argument to the jury, also provided by the reporters, and was reminded of what he had told jurors back in 1985: that Lisker's footprints, and no one else's, were in the blood.

He reread the LAPD report.

"I don't know what to make of this," he said. "If I had known about it, it's certainly something I would have had to explain."

He said the finding was "clearly exculpatory evidence."

Asked who came to mind as a potential source of the footprint, Rabichow replied without hesitation: "Ryan."

Rabichow left the restaurant feeling uneasy about a case he had thought he knew from every angle. In the weeks and months that followed, he plowed through hundreds of pages of trial testimony, police reports and other documents.

Steadily, his misgivings grew.

He was unsettled by the phone call placed from the Lisker home around the time of the attack. Rabichow said he had "no doubt" that whoever dialed the number was trying to call Ryan's mother -- or to act as if he was.

"It's very troubling," he said.

Rabichow said he now wished that Mulcahy, Lisker's defense lawyer, had been allowed to present evidence about Ryan at trial.

"It's never been my contention that [Ryan] wasn't the kind of person to do this," Rabichow said. "He is the kind of person who would do this. I wouldn't put it past him."

Still, Rabichow remained convinced that Bruce could not have seen his mother's head through the dining room window. A dining set and a foot-high stone planter at the edge of the entry hall would have stood in the way. That meant Lisker had lied about what prompted him to enter the house and could not be believed about anything else.

Yet Rabichow couldn't be sure about this unless he looked through the window himself. Years earlier, he had gone to trial without visiting the crime scene, relying on Monsue's investigation.

Times reporters had visited the old Lisker residence twice and had arranged with the current owner to go back again. They asked Rabichow to join them this time, and he agreed. So on a rainy afternoon in March, he drove to Huston Street and set foot in the house for the first time.

Using police photos and measurements, reporters replicated the position of Dorka Lisker's body. The planter was no longer there, so the reporters built a wooden facsimile of the same dimensions. They also brought a 4-by-8-foot rug to stand in for the one that lay there 22 years earlier.

When Rabichow agreed that the rug and the planter were in the same positions as on the day of the murder, a reporter lay down in the spot where Dorka Lisker's body was found.

Rabichow walked outside and stood in front of the dining room window through which Bruce Lisker claimed to have seen his mother. Rabichow acknowledged that he could see the reporter's head from several vantage points. The dining set and planter were not the obstacles he thought they would be. He could see over them.

He sighed deeply and stood silent for a moment. He said he wished he had conducted such an experiment before the trial.

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