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Wrongful convictions: California is guilty of injustice

The Bruce Lisker case is a reminder that state officials have made little progress in dealing with the problem.

August 11, 2009

Twenty-four years after being sent to prison for murder, Bruce Lisker has finally had his conviction overturned. In her ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips concluded that Lisker, a San Fernando man who was serving a life sentence for the murder of his 66-year-old mother, had been convicted as a result of "false evidence" and inadequate representation by his attorney.

The judge's findings matched those of Times reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait, who four years ago retraced the police investigation and found significant errors. On Monday, Phillips said she intended to release Lisker on bail while prosecutors decided whether to appeal her decision, retry Lisker or drop the case against him.

The case is deeply disturbing; there is strong reason to fear that an innocent man spent more than two decades behind bars. What is certain is that Lisker, who was a troubled 17-year-old at the time of his mother's murder, did not get a fair shake at his trial. Even if he does eventually go free, the righting of this one wrong is not reason to celebrate.

What's even more disturbing is that such miscarriages of justice are being uncovered with troubling regularity these days, especially now that DNA evidence is being used to reopen old cases. The public appears to be shocked with each new revelation, but perhaps it is time to get over that. The truth is that this is an ongoing problem in California. And thanks to knee-jerk obstruction by district attorneys and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state has made little progress in fixing it.

Last year, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a 196-page report outlining procedural and structural flaws in the state's criminal justice system, along with recommendations to ameliorate them. The Legislature responded by passing bills in 2006 and 2007 regarding eyewitness identification and the video recording of police interrogations, but Schwarzenegger vetoed both. Legislation regulating the use of jailhouse informants passed as well, but met the same fate as did a bill increasing compensation for wrongfully convicted people.

The state's unwillingness to provide meaningful compensation and social services to help the wrongly convicted is particularly galling; it means that even if he is set free, Lisker's only compensation may be a handshake and $200. And don't count on the handshake.

Given California's unwillingness to take the necessary steps to reduce wrongful convictions -- or to pay the price when it errs -- it's a sure bet we'll be hearing about more Bruce Liskers. Perhaps next time we won't be so shocked.

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