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Jurors Now Fear They Knew Too Little

Five jurors who 20 years ago voted to convict a San Fernando Valley teenager of killing his mother said Monday they would have acquitted the youth had they known about new crime scene evidence and a second suspect never presented at trial.

One of the jurors, Lorraine Maxwell, said in a sworn statement filed in federal court that there was "no way" she would have convicted Bruce Lisker, now 39, of murdering his 66-year-old mother in her ranch-style Sherman Oaks home March 10, 1983.

"I am saddened, as well as angered, that the evidence … was not presented to the jury," Maxwell said. Lisker's lawyers submitted her declaration Monday in connection with a habeas corpus petition they have filed on his behalf.

The jurors' comments came in response to a Los Angeles Times investigation published Sunday into the beating and stabbing death of Dorka Lisker. Bruce Lisker, who had a history of drug abuse and fighting with his mother, was convicted of second-degree murder and has been behind bars ever since.

Juror Linda R. Kelly, a retired Pacific Bell worker living in San Diego County, said she became physically ill as she read The Times' article, which detailed new evidence and findings that contradict the case presented at trial.

"It was making me sick to my stomach," she said.

"Even just talking about it now, I'm getting all teared up. I just hate to think that I was a party to this."

Among the evidence overlooked by authorities and Lisker's defense attorney at the time were photographs of a bloody footprint left in a bathroom.

The footprint was attributed to Bruce Lisker at trial. But a recent analysis by the Los Angeles Police Department concluded that the footprint did not match Lisker's shoes, suggesting there was another suspect in the house at the time of the killing.

The bathroom footprint was "similar in size and dimension" to a shoe-print impression found on the victim's shaved head during an autopsy, according to another recent LAPD analysis. At the time, authorities did not recognize the mark as a shoe print.

At trial, prosecutor Phillip Rabichow told jurors that Lisker made the bloody footprints found at the crime scene. If Lisker was innocent, he asked, "why isn't there an intruder's footprint somewhere?"

Juror Mary L. Tweten said she felt betrayed, in part, because she was misled by the footprint evidence.

"They didn't do their job right," Tweten, a retiree now living in Nevada, said of the authorities. "They didn't present us the whole truth."

Had she known about the evidence, she said, "I would not have voted guilty — absolutely not."

In fact, Tweten said she and several other jurors initially voted to acquit Lisker, but were later persuaded to change their votes by others who strongly believed Lisker was guilty.

On Monday, The Times contacted eight of the 12 people who served on Lisker's jury in 1985. Five said the new information about the case would have prompted them to acquit Lisker. One said she couldn't be sure whether the information would have changed her mind. Two declined to comment, and four others could not be reached.

(Conviction in a criminal trial requires a unanimous vote by jurors.)

Juror Arthur S. Bergem, 64, of Winnetka said he found the new evidence difficult to reconcile with what was presented at trial. "It puts a whole new light on it," he said.

"Would I have voted guilty knowing all this? I'm not sure," Bergem said. "Which, given reasonable doubt, means I'd have to vote not guilty."

Bergem echoed other jurors, saying there were heated debates before voting to convict even without the new evidence.

"We had a couple gals who had a real tough time believing he did what they said he did to his mom," Bergem recalled. "I don't believe that it was a slam dunk by any stretch."

Juror Valree Stephenson, 72, of Woodland Hills said she had been particularly convinced by the prosecution's argument that it would have been physically impossible for Lisker to have seen his mother's body lying in the foyer through the windows at the back of the house.

Lisker told police on the day of the murder that he had come home, found the front door locked, and then gone around to the back patio. He said he saw his mother's body through the rear windows and then broke into the house by removing panes from a louvered window at the kitchen.

The Times reported Sunday that Rabichow, now retired, acknowledged after a recent visit to the house that Lisker's view may not have been obstructed and that he might have been able to see his mother, as he claimed.

Based on The Times' investigation and other evidence, Rabichow said he has reasonable doubt about Lisker's guilt.

The prosecutor's change of heart, Stephenson said, has changed her view of the entire case.

Based on what she knows now, she said, "I would certainly find reasonable doubt. I think he deserves a retrial."

The Times' story also described how Rabichow told jurors that there was no money in Dorka Lisker's purse, confirming his theory that Lisker killed his mother after stealing money from the purse.

But The Times found a document in the county's archives, filed two weeks after Lisker's trial, in which a court clerk recorded that the victim's wallet contained $120.

In addition, The Times' story explained that jurors heard nothing about a second suspect and former roommate of Lisker's, John Michael Ryan, after Rabichow successfully argued that there was no evidence linking him to the crime scene on the day of the killing.

But a phone call was made from the Lisker home around the time of the murder to a number nearly identical to that of Ryan's mother — a call Rabichow now acknowledges could be used to link Ryan to the crime. Ryan killed himself in 1996.

Sandra Cooper, 45, of Woodland Hills said she didn't know what impact, if any, the new information would have had on her decision.

"There's not enough information for me to say 'absolutely, set him free,' " she said. "But there are questions that need to be answered. Definitely, the information about this Ryan guy should have been presented at trial. It would have given us something else to look at, where there was no place else to look."

Lisker's presence at the crime scene made him an obvious suspect.

After breaking into the house from the kitchen window, he said he found his mother lying in a pool of blood near the front door, two steak knives stuck in her back. As his mother struggled for breath, he called for help.

Almost from the start, the detective in the case, Andrew R. Monsue, didn't believe Lisker's story. He knew about his volatile relationship with mother and his drug use.

Monsue seized on perceived inconsistencies in the teenager's story. For example, the detective thought that the way Lisker entered the house seemed more like a burglary attempt than a boy rushing to his mother's aid.

Monsue arrested Lisker within hours of the slaying.

The detective dismissed Ryan as a suspect, even though Ryan lied about his whereabouts at the time of the killing, had a history of violence and suddenly left town the day after the murder.

Over the years, Lisker has twice confessed to killing his mother: once in an unsuccessful attempt to get a plea deal in which he would have been released from custody at age 25, and again when he first became eligible for parole.

Lisker has since disavowed his confessions, saying they were desperate attempts to gain his freedom. For more than a decade, he has focused solely on trying to prove his innocence.

Lisker's habeas corpus petition is pending in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. But before his lawyers can argue the merits of his case, a federal magistrate must first decide whether Lisker will be excused from a deadline he missed for filing such appeals.

Kelly, the retired phone company worker in San Diego County, said she was completely convinced by the prosecution's case at the time of the trial. But she thinks differently now.

"I feel that I made a mistake," she said. "Hopefully, he will get a new trial and he can have the rest of his life."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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