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Man wrongfully convicted in mother's 1983 slaying, jurist says

March 04, 2009|Matt Lait and Scott Glover

A San Fernando Valley man serving a life sentence in state prison for the 1983 beating and stabbing death of his mother was wrongfully convicted and should be retried or set free, a federal magistrate judge in Los Angeles has recommended.

In a 69-page report, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ralph Zarefsky concluded that key evidence prosecutors used to convict Bruce Lisker -- including a bloody shoe print left at the murder scene -- was "false evidence" that did not incriminate him.

Furthermore, Zarefsky found that Lisker's defense lawyer -- now a Superior Court commissioner -- performed so poorly in the case that Lisker, who is 43, was deprived of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

Zarefsky's report, released late Monday, mirrors findings of a seven-month Times investigation published in 2005, which undermined key elements of the prosecution's case against Lisker and exposed the LAPD's investigation into the slaying of his 66-year-old mother, Dorka, as sloppy and incomplete.

Despite the legal victory, Lisker's release from prison remains uncertain. Zarefsky's report has been forwarded to a U.S. District Court judge, who can adopt the document as written, make changes or reject it altogether. Prosecutors may also appeal rulings that don't go their way. A retrial, however, seems unlikely because new evidence has undermined the prosecution's case against Lisker and key witnesses have either died or been discredited.

Lisker's private investigator, who has worked on the case more than a decade, said he spoke to his client Monday night and told him the news.

"He was thrilled," said Paul Ingels. "He was in tears. We discussed what a long haul it's been. We used to say there was light at the end of the tunnel. Now he feels like he's finally going to get out of the tunnel."

Scott Gerber, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which is defending Lisker's conviction, said lawyers were "carefully reviewing" the magistrate's opinion and were "evaluating all of our options."


'Reasonable doubt'

Retired Deputy Dist. Atty. Phillip Rabichow, the prosecutor who won Lisker's conviction, said in an interview Tuesday that he was not convinced of Lisker's innocence but that he believed there was insufficient evidence to retry the case.

"The bottom line is that I have reasonable doubt as to his guilt," Rabichow said.

In his ruling, Zarefsky took a swipe at lawyers from the attorney general's office, suggesting that they caused a yearlong delay in addressing the merits of Lisker's petition with needless legal maneuvers. Lisker's attorneys have said they might make a motion to have their client released on bail if the attorney general's office seeks an appeal or any further delays in the case.

Lisker was arrested on suspicion of killing his mother March 10, 1983. He was 17 at the time and, because of drug use and frequent arguments with his mother, was living in a nearby apartment paid for by his parents.

He told police he went to the family home in Sherman Oaks the day of the slaying and knocked on the door. His mother didn't answer. After a few minutes he became concerned and walked around to the backyard to look through the living room window and patio sliding glass door. He said that he thought he could see his mother's feet from the living room window and that he could definitely see her head through the sliding glass door. She appeared to be lying on the floor in the entry hall.

Lisker told police he broke in through a kitchen window and found his mother bloody and unconscious, with two knives protruding from her back. He said he removed the knives and called paramedics. His mother was taken to the hospital and died a short time later.

Andrew Monsue, the lead detective on the case, was immediately suspicious of Lisker's account. He didn't believe that the frizzy-haired teen dressed in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt could have seen his mother through the rear windows of the house as he claimed. Monsue thought that his view through the living room window would have been blocked by reflection from the late-morning sun and that a fireplace and brick planter would have blocked his view of his mother's head.

This became the foundation of the prosecution's argument at trial -- that Lisker was lying about being able to see his mother, and that if he was lying about that, he was lying about everything else. Rabichow, the prosecutor, also sought to undermine Lisker's claim that someone else had committed the crime. Rabichow told jurors that there were several bloody footprints left at the scene and that they all belonged to Lisker.

But at an evidentiary hearing in 2005, Zarefsky heard undisputed evidence that none of the bloody prints matched Lisker's shoes. There was also testimony that an apparent shoe impression on the victim's head did not match Lisker's shoes, but was similar in "size and dimension" to a bloody shoe print left in the bathroom of the home.

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