YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Informant's Past Shadows His Testimony From '85 Murder Trial

Robert Hughes helped convict Bruce Lisker. Now he's at center stage again.

October 31, 2005|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

Robert Hughes was a Vietnam veteran with a long criminal record and a history of heroin addiction.

He was also the prosecution's star witness at the trial of Bruce Lisker, a San Fernando Valley teenager accused of beating and stabbing his mother to death.

Hughes told the jury in the fall of 1985 that Lisker had been in the cell next to his at the Los Angeles County Jail, and that the two had spoken through a 4-inch hole in the wall.

"He told me that he killed his mother," Hughes testified, "and then he started telling me how."

Lisker was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Today, much of the case against him has been discredited by new or previously overlooked evidence. As Lisker fights to overturn his conviction, Hughes is once again at center stage. His testimony is one of the last surviving elements of the prosecution case.

Now it, too, seems suspect.

An examination of his past has found that:

* Hughes has a history of mental problems that was not known to participants in Lisker's trial. Doctors have diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He has reported hearing voices and once believed Viet Cong were tunneling beneath his house.

* In an 18-month period in 1982 and 1983, Hughes reached out to authorities three times to report that accused murderers had confessed to him. He testified against all three defendants, and was rewarded with a reduction in his own sentence. In two of the cases, his testimony was at odds with physical evidence.

* A detective who used Hughes as an informant grew leery of his knack for producing confessions. The detective said he warned Hughes not to become "a professional informant" because no one would believe him. Soon after, Hughes came forward with Lisker's alleged confession.

* After Lisker's supposed admission, Hughes wrote him letters in jail in which he expressed confidence that the teenager would soon be freed. On the witness stand, Hughes suggested that the letters were forgeries. The prosecutor conceded to the jury that Hughes was indeed the author.

Lisker, now 40 and an inmate at Mule Creek State Prison southeast of Sacramento, has filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, contending that he was unjustly convicted.

In July, a federal magistrate judge ruled that Lisker had made a persuasive preliminary case that he is "innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted." The magistrate ordered an evidentiary hearing, scheduled for December, to explore the issue further.

Hughes is likely to play a key role. Lisker's lawyers say information discovered by The Times about Hughes' mental condition is new evidence that further undermines the prosecution case.

They also contend that Hughes, given his history as an informant, was essentially an agent for the prosecution whose conduct violated Lisker's right to a fair trial.

The state attorney general's office, however, says Hughes' testimony about the confession remains persuasive evidence of Lisker's guilt. Prosecutors have listed him among the witnesses they will call at the December hearing.

Hughes, who now lives in Utah, said in a recent interview that he testified truthfully in 1985. But he said he understood why his credibility might be questioned, and he acknowledged doubts about Lisker's guilt.

"If all they're going on is my testimony," he said, "that wouldn't be enough for me."

Words of Comfort

Dorka Lisker, 66, was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in her home in Sherman Oaks on March 10, 1983. Her adopted son, Bruce, then 17, called for an ambulance.

The teenager had a history of abusing drugs and fighting with his mother, and his hands were covered with blood when police officers arrived.

He said he had come home to find the front door locked and had walked to the back of the house, where he looked through a window and saw his mother's body on the floor. He said he broke in, rushed to her side and administered first aid.

Police dismissed Lisker's account as a fabrication. They believed he killed his mother after she found him stealing money from her purse. He was charged with murder.

A judge ruled that Lisker should be tried as an adult, but ordered him held in juvenile hall.

Three days later, in violation of the order, the youth was moved to the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. He was placed in a segregation area for youthful offenders, informants and others who would be at risk in the general population.

At the time, sheriff's deputies, who run the jail, sometimes deliberately placed suspects among known informants.

In the guise of wanting to help, snitches would pump cellmates for information about the charges and evidence against them. Then they would fashion "confessions" based on what they learned, a grand jury reported years later.

Los Angeles Times Articles