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After 26 Years in Prison, Innocent Man Negotiates New Life


How much is a year of your life worth? How about a decade or two decades? This past week, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay $24 million to two men who were imprisoned for years for crimes they did not commit. One of the men, Bruce Lisker received over $7 million in the settlement. He joins us now from our studios at NPR West to talk about this. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRUCE LISKER: Absolutely, Rachel. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: You spent 26 years behind bars before you were released in 2009. You were convicted of murder when you were just 17 years old, charged with killing your mother. Bruce, I'm sure it is a long and complicated story. But how was your conviction eventually overturned?

LISKER: Well, it wasn't a DNA case. It was just good hard reinvestigation of every single fact that was presented at trial, most of which were fabricated and on the part of Paul Ingles, a private investor who was a cop for 10 years in Pomona, an amazing human being who came on the case - paid - and then, after I ran out of money, continued on for another - what? - 10 years just because he believed in it and a couple of amazing reporters at the LA Times, a hero at the LAPD, a sergeant named Jim Gavin who reinvestigated my case essentially from the ground up.

MARTIN: So you have been out now for several years.

LISKER: Six years.

MARTIN: Six years. So what was last Tuesday like when you found out that you would get this money, $7 million?

LISKER: It was surreal. I was really surreal. I mean, you said in the intro, how do you put a price tag on anything? And it wasn't so much - it's not the money. It's just a vindication and an acknowledgment by the city, literally at its highest levels, that this thing happened to me and not just me, my father, our family - this tragedy compounded by rampant corruption on the part of a few officers.

MARTIN: What happened to those officers?

LISKER: They retired with full pensions.


LISKER: Yeah. You know, I volunteer at a juvenile hall. And a lot of the kids that I - a creative writing class - there's a creative writing class I volunteer teach at the LA County juvenile halls. And some of the children that I teach are the age that I was when I was framed. And I look at them, and I can't conceive of how a human being, an adult, could look across an interview room table at a 17-year-old kid, scared - me, scared, having just found his mother - and decide, you know what? I'm going to - I'm going to shortcut this thing. I'm going to jump to a conclusion that because this kid has long hair, he's got nothing coming from me and, you know, least of all an honest examination of the facts. And I'm going to frame him. I can't conceive of harming a child like that. But it happened.

MARTIN: What's life been like since you got out?

LISKER: Well, gosh. (Laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) It's a big question.

LISKER: Yeah. I mean, stepping through the gates is literally like touching down on another planet, in a lot of ways - a planet that when I left it, I was a child and I come back to as a middle-aged adult. And - and you look around. And it's a world that's continued on without you. It's developed. It's - it's matured. Before I went away, I'd never used an ATM, never used a credit card. They didn't have cell phones. (Laughter) I mean, on and on and on - there was no such thing as the Internet. Then I got out, and I went, oh, my god, this is... And then taking a drive past the house where my mother was killed and where I grew up before that. And that and a number of other visits to different places and meeting different people in a way have allowed me to, like, take back from this nightmare, this lie, my actual life.

MARTIN: How do you negotiate anger? Do you...

LISKER: Well, yeah, that's going to come up, isn't it? I don't do recrimination. I don't do bitterness. I don't do, you know, carrying that around because that would damage me. And I came up with something that I repeat as often as I have a voice. It's impossible to travel the road to peace unless you first cross the bridge of forgiveness. And, you know, the only hope of peace and happiness that I have is to, the minute something like that comes up - and it does. Forgiveness is not a light switch; it's a dimmer. And, you know, somebody keeps sneaking over and turning it up. But you have to be - you have to be mindful. You have to not go to the fear, not go to the anger, not go to that side, but go to the love of yourself, of your family.

MARTIN: How does this money change anything for you? Are you going to continue to work? What do you do now?

LISKER: I've been doing a bit of voice over and web design and struggling at it. I - you know, at any rate, it's - what the money means to me - and it's not about the money. I think to focus on the money is to trivialize it a little bit, what actually happened. The money allows me to continue to do the things that I like to do - doing the teaching in the juvenile hall, speaking out against the death penalty and, you know, enjoying the rest of my life. I mean, I had a big chunk taken out of the middle. I have to make every minute count, is how I view it. And, you know, it does give me that luxury. And I'm thankful for that. But I think the acknowledgment is what I am more grateful for.

MARTIN: Bruce Lisker served 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was released in 2009, received a $7 million settlement this past week. Bruce, thanks so much for talking with us.

LISKER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.