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Bruce Lisker

Other California Cases with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
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On March 10, 1983, 66-year-old Dorka Lisker was beaten with a Little League trophy and then stabbed in the back with a pair of steak knives in her home in Sherman Oaks, California.

Paramedics were summoned to the scene at 11:26 a.m. by Dorka’s adopted son, Bruce; she was taken to a hospital, where she died around 3:00 p.m. Bruce claimed that when his mother didn’t answer the door he went to the backyard, looked through a window into the living room, and saw her lying on the floor. He said he removed louvered panes of glass from the window, entered the house, and found his mother bleeding on the floor unconscious but alive. He said he pulled two steak knives from her back and called the paramedics.

Detectives Andrew Monsue and Howard Landgren investigated the crime. Monsue, who questioned Bruce, immediately suspected that the 17-year-old Bruce had committed the crime himself. Bruce had a history of drug addiction (in fact, he was high on methamphetamine when he had called the paramedics), had an extremely contentious relationship with his mother, and had previously been convicted of vandalism for throwing a screwdriver at a driver who had cut him off. Authorities suspected that Dorka had caught Bruce stealing money from her purse in order to buy drugs and that Bruce had killed her in a subsequent struggle.

Police photographer Mike Wilson took photographs of the inside and the outside of the house. The detectives found shoe prints in the mud outside the house heading toward the window that Bruce said he entered. That the shoe prints went only toward the house contradicted Bruce’s story that he ran back and forth between two windows. They also found bloody shoeprints inside the house. Bruce had seven small drops and some smears of blood on his clothing.

On March 23, Monsue and Landgren returned to the Lisker house with Wilson, who took photographs at around 11:00 a.m. with a model in the position where Dorka’s body was found. The detectives’ notes state that Wilson “concurred that susp[ect] could not have seen mother [sic] lying on the floor.”

Robert Lisker, Bruce’s father, told Monsue that Dorka had told him that a former friend of Bruce’s, John Michael “Mike” Ryan, had visited the house the day before the murder, asking to be hired to do chores. Bruce knew Ryan from drug counseling. Bruce had sometimes allowed Ryan to sleep on this couch, but Bruce had kicked him out in January 1983. Monsue found Ryan in a youth detention facility in Gulfport, Mississippi. He had been convicted for trying to break into a woman’s home.

Ryan said he had arrived in Los Angeles from Gulfport on March 6. He said he had gone to the Lisker home on March 9, asking to use the phone and do some chores. He said Dorka invited him in and gave him a drink of water. But she didn’t hire him to do chores, so he left. He said on March 10 he checked into a motel in Hollywood at 11:00 a.m. He took a bus back to Gulfport on March 11.

But Monsue determined that Ryan checked into the motel at 3:00 p.m. Ryan also admitted stabbing a “black guy” who tried to rob him on the morning of March 9.

Monsue ran a criminal records check on Ryan using the wrong birth date: January--rather than April--24, 1966. The records check stated that Ryan had no criminal record. In fact, Ryan had been convicted in Ventura County of robbery with a knife 10 months before Dorka Lisker’s murder. But Monsue, unaware of that, dropped Ryan as a suspect.

Monsue told prosecutor Phillip Rabichow that the evidence against Bruce included blood spatter on his clothes, a bloody footprint in Dorka’s bathroom that was said to belong to him, and the absence of nearly $150 that Dorka was carrying. Additionally, Monsue concluded that Bruce could not have seen his mother from outside the house because of glare and obstructions. Bruce then was arrested.

After his arrest, Bruce insisted he was innocent and demanded a polygraph examination. The test examiner said Bruce exhibited deception in his responses to queries about the murder, and Bruce was held in custody pending trial.

A jailhouse informant, Robert Donald Hughes, who met Bruce in pre-trial detention, struck a deal with prosecutors to testify that Bruce had confessed to the murder in exchange for a reduction of his own sentence.

Lisker went to trial in November 1984. On December 4, at the urging of the Lisker family lawyer, Robert Johnson, who assured him that he would be sentenced as a juvenile if he pled guilty to second degree murder, Bruce withdrew his claims of innocence and admitted that he had murdered his adopted mother. The prosecutors, however, withdrew the plea bargain and decided to prosecute Bruce for second degree murder as an adult after psychologists found Bruce unremorseful and therefore unfit for treatment as a juvenile.

At the second trial, which began in October 1985, Monsue, who did not claim to be an expert shoeprint analyst, testified that the patterns—variously described as “zigzageddy” or “wave-like”—of the shoeprints in mud outside the house and the bloody shoeprints inside the house “resembled” Lisker’s shoes “quite closely.” A blood spatter expert, Ronald R. Linhart testified that the blood drops found on Lisker’s shoes and shirt cuffs could have resulted from blunt force trauma or “castoff” or could have resulted from Bruce tending to his mother.

Monsue and Wilson both testified that March 10, the day of the murder, was “a very bright sunny day” and that, because of reflection from the sun, Lisker would not have been able to see his mother through the living room window. The jury was shown photographs that Wilson took on March 10. Wilson testified that after “our discussion this morning we established that it was approximately at 11:30” that he took the photographs. Perhaps because the paramedic call had been made at 11:26 a.m., Rabichow asked Wilson if he might have misremembered the date. The jury was also shown the photographs from the March 23 reconstruction. Monsue testified that on March 23 “[t]he conditions of the sun, the temperature, the environment in terms of the dampness on the ground were very similar” to the conditions on the day of the murder. Wilson testified similarly.

Finally, Monsue testified that no cash was found in Dorka’s purse and that the missing money was never found. He could not remember whether Bruce had cash on him when he was arrested.

Bruce’s defense attorney, Dennis E. Mulcahy, attempted to argue that the real killer was Mike Ryan, but that defense was excluded by the judge because there was no evidence that placed Ryan near the scene of the crime.

Mulcahy also tried to rebut claims that Bruce could not see inside the house. Robert Lisker testified it may have been overcast, and Mulcahy pointed out that Wilson’s March 10 photographs showed a white, not a blue, sky.

In closing argument, Rabichow, who had never visited the crime scene, told the jury Bruce could not have seen his mother through the window because a planter and glare from the sun off the windows would have blocked his view. He said, “That is the most condemning lie that he told.” He noted that the defense had offered nothing to support Robert Lisker’s testimony that it might have been overcast.

Rabichow also told the jury that the sky in the March 10 photographs was white because the photographs had been overexposed, something Wilson had never said.

Contrary to Linhart’s testimony, Rabichow argued that if Bruce had hugged his mother he should have had more blood on him than he did. He argued that there was a small amount of blood on Bruce’s clothing because the blood would have spattered away from him because he was “swinging away, obviously.”

On November 21, 1985, Bruce was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life.

In 1986, Mike Ryan was convicted of armed robbery in San Francisco for threatening a woman with a knife and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

In 1988, the California Court of Appeals upheld Lisker’s conviction. Among other things, the court said that Linhart, the blood spatter expert, had testified that the blood drops had been deposited on Lisker’s shoes and shirt cuffs “at the moment when his mother suffered a bluntforce injury.”

In 1995, Lisker’s father, Bob, died. Bruce used funds he inherited to pay new lawyers and a private investigator, Paul Ingels.

On June 28, 1996, Ryan died of a drug overdose.

In 1998, Monsue wrote a letter to the parole board claiming he had discovered Dorka’s missing money. The new owners of her house had discovered it in the attic above what had been Bruce’s bedroom. Monsue’s letter said “This revelation confirmed our initial theory that Mr. Lisker had in fact robbed his mother. He has clearly demonstrated what he is capable of and should never be released to prey on anyone else in the future.”

Ingels interviewed the new owner of the house, a lawyer named Morton P. Borenstein, who signed a sworn statement that neither he nor his wife Beatrice had discovered any money in the attic or discussed the case with Monsue or anyone else from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

In 2001, Lisker, reviewing the case file, discovered that a telephone call made from the Lisker home at 10:22 a.m. the day of the murder was the same, except for one digit, as Mike Ryan’s mother’s house.

In 2003, after being denied parole multiple times, Lisker filed a habeas corpus petition and a complaint with the LAPD against Monsue.

Lisker’s complaint was assigned to LAPD Internal Affairs officer Jim Gavin. Gavin asked LAPD forensic scientist Ronald J. Raquel to analyze the shoeprints. Raquel reported that there were prints from two different shoes outside the house, one with a “herringbone” pattern and one with a wave pattern. He reported that the herringbone prints were from the same source as a bloody shoeprint found in the bathroom. He said that the herringbone prints were not made by Lisker’s Pacer tennis shoes. Raquel also concluded that shoeprints outside the house went in two directions, contrary to Monsue’s testimony that the prints only went in the direction of the house.

Gavin also found National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data showing that the sky was overcast on March 10.

Gavin interviewed Borenstein who repeated the statement he had given Ingels. Gavin also interviewed a friend of Ryan’s in Fort Lauderdale. The man said some of Lisker’s friends had cased the Lisker home and planned to rob it. Ingels told Gavin that Ryan had been one of those friends.

In 2004, Gavin’s superiors told him to shut down his investigation. Gavin would later testify (at the 2005 habeas hearing) that his supervisor, Lieutenant Mike Williams, said “Look, that [expletive] is staying in prison. Do you understand me?” Gavin submitted an abbreviated report, but he also wrote a longer report that he did not submit. He gave a copy to Ingels, along with a copy of Raquel’s forensic report. When the LAPD later discovered this, it filed a complaint against Gavin for disclosing confidential information.

In July, the LAPD responded to Lisker that it had found his complaint without merit. Ingels wrote to Police Chief William J. Bratton, accusing Internal Affairs of a coverup. The LAPD launched a second investigation.

The second investigation was conducted by the LAPD cold case squad. It concluded that Lisker was guilty. However, it found a new piece of evidence: an autopsy photograph of Dorka’s shaved head with a pattern that looked like a shoeprint.

Raquel was asked to analyze the photograph. He reported that the shoeprint was not consistent with Lisker’s shoes, but it was “similar in size and dimension” to the bloody shoeprint from the bathroom.

On May 22, 2005, reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait of the Los Angeles Times published a major exposé of the Lisker case. They found that $120 was listed in the 1983 evidence report detailing the contents of Dorka’s purse, potentially explaining the missing money and suggesting that Monsue lied when he claimed the money was found in the attic.

The Times reporters obtained the permission of the current owner of the Lisker home to reconstruct the crime scene for Rabichow, who had not visited the crime scene at the time of the trial. They showed, contrary to what the prosecution had argued at trial, that Lisker could have seen Dorka from outside the house. Rabichow said he was “stunned” by the finding of the $120, and he called the shoeprint report a “bombshell.” Rabichow said he regretted not visiting the crime scene: “I should have come out here. This is not what I thought it would be.”

The following day juror Lorraine Maxwell filed a sworn statement in federal court stating that there was “no way” she would have convicted Lisker if she knew about the evidence presented in the Times story. The Times was able to contact 8 of the 12 jurors. Five of those 8 said the new evidence would have persuaded them to acquit Lisker. One, Linda R. Kelly, said she felt physically ill after reading the Times story.

On June 23, Bratton wrote a letter to parole officials asking them to disregard Monsue’s letter claiming to have found Dorka’s money in the attic. The letter still contended that Lisker was guilty and should be denied parole.

In July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ralph Zarefsky granted Lisker’s request for a federal habeas corpus hearing.

In August, FBI shoeprint analyst Sandra Wiersema reported that she agreed with Raquel’s conclusions.

Also in August, Gavin filed a complaint with the City of Los Angeles alleging retaliation for his investigation of the Lisker case. It was denied. In October, Gavin sued the LAPD. His wife, Carol, who was also an LAPD officer, filed an accompanying suit alleging retaliation.

The federal habeas corpus hearing began on December 2, 2005. Lisker was represented by Vicki Podberesky and William Genego. Linhart testified and disputed the California Court of Appeals characterization of his testimony as having proven that Lisker killed his mother. “I would make no such conclusion based on the evidence I examined,” he said. Instead, Linhart said that the blood spatter was consistent with both the prosecution theory that Lisker killed his mother and with Lisker’s contention that he found his mother stabbed, knelt beside her, and removed two knives from her back.

Greg Derousseau and George Prado, who had attended the crime scene as LAPD officers, testified that they may have stepped in blood and left the shoeprint in the bathroom. Both denied stepping on Dorka’s head.

The lawyers and their experts visited the crime to scene together to reenact the crime and try to determine whether Lisker could have seen his mother from outside the house. Frank Terrio testified for the defense that Dorka would have been visible from the most likely position of her body. Michael S. Varat, a forensic reconstruction engineer who testified for the state, agreed, but he also noted that whether Lisker could have seen his mother from outside the home depended on where she was lying and that witnesses differed as to her exact location. A meteorologist, Kenneth Clark, testified that the morning was cloudy and overcast, and that Lisker would have been able to see his mother though the window.

At the hearing it was also established that Wilson’s testimony that he took the March 10 photographs around 11:30 a.m. was false. The photography department was not requested to send a photographer to the crime scene until 12:35 p.m. Based on the time shown on a clock in one of the photographs, the Court estimated that Wilson took his first photograph around 1:00 p.m. The Court pronounced itself “troubled by Wilson’s testimony,” which it described as a “serious misstatement.”

Rabichow admitted that he was the “moving force” behind Hughes’s early release. Rabichow testified “There are some doubts that I have that I didn't have at the time of the trial,” but that he still believed Lisker was guilty.

In May 2006, Zarefsky recommended to U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips that Lisker’s habeas petition be allowed to proceed, despite the fact that Lisker had missed a filing deadline. Zarefsky wrote that Lisker’s conviction had been “effectively dismantled,” that he had “no confidence” in the guilty verdict, and that “no reasonable juror” would convict Lisker in light of the new evidence. In October, Phillips adopted Zarefsky’s findings.

In December, Zarefsky asked California Deputy Attorney General Robert D. Breton if he would waive the requirement that Lisker’s new evidence be heard in state court. Breton declined, and, in January 2007, Zarefsky sent the case to state court.

In March, Lisker was denied parole again.

In July, Lisker made an unusual request to Phillips to grant bail while his case proceeded through the courts. In August, Phillips denied the request.

In November, the California Supreme Court denied Lisker’s petition on procedural grounds, as a successive habeas petition, thus returning the case back to federal court.

In September 2008, the Gavins’ consolidated lawsuit went to trial in federal court. The jury found in favor of the City of Los Angeles.

In November, Zarefsky held another habeas hearing. Sue Sarkis, an investigator who had worked for Mulcahy, testified that Mulcahy declined to ask for funding for her to travel to Mississippi to interview Ryan. She also testified that she advised Mulcahy to hire a shoeprint analyst but he declined. Mulcahy testified that he did not remember not asking for travel funds but that it would have made no sense for him not to do so.

On August 8th, 2009, Judge Phillips vacated Lisker’s conviction on the grounds that it was based on false evidence and inadequate legal defense. Phillips wrote that “Rabichow's decision to rely solely on Monsue’s judgment . . . led to a trial tainted with false evidence.” However, she concluded that “Rabichow was not aware at or before the 1985 trial that there was cash in the purse.” She also stated that “Unlike Rabichow, Monsue . . . and police photographer Michael Wilson . . . understood the false nature of their testimony.” However, she also noted that Rabichow was aware of at least one instance of false testimony: Wilson’s testimony about what time he took the photographs on March 10. “At the very least,” Phillips wrote, “Rabichow, who possessed the police ‘murder book’ showing the falsity of Wilson's testimony, should have known that this testimony was false.”

Five days later Lisker was released from prison pending retrial.

Two weeks later the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office charged Bruce again in the murder of Dorka Lisker.

On September 21, 2009, Deputy District Attorney Patrick Dixon moved to dismiss the charges, though he said he remained convinced that Lisker was guilty.

Lisker filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles in December 2009.

In September 2010, California Attorney General Jerry Brown asked Phillips to vacate her ruling overturning Lisker’s conviction because of the missed filing deadline. The Attorney General’s office then asked for a continuance until mid-November. Genego accused the Attorney General’s office of trying to postpone their argument until after the November election, an accusation the Attorney General’s office denied.

In October, Phillips ruled against the State's petition that Phillips vacate her overturning of Lisker's conviction because Lisker had missed a filing deadline because, ironically, the state had failed to appeal her ruling in a timely manner.

Lisker’s civil suit against the city was settled in January 2016 for $7.6 million.

– Simon Cole and Charles Armbrust

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 4/15/2020
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1983
Convicted:1985
Exonerated:2009
Sentence:16 to Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No