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Bruce Lisker walks out of prison, but not yet entirely free [Updated]

August 13, 2009 |  7:30 am


[Updated at 8:10 a.m. with additional quotes from Bruce Lisker.]

Twenty-six years, five months, and three days after his mother was killed and he was arrested for her murder, Bruce Lisker walked out of Mule Creek State Prison today, not quite a free man, but one no longer confined to a cell.

“It's just amazing. Absolutely surreal," said Lisker at an impromptu news conference at a nearby park. “It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream."

Lisker smiled as he stood beneath a tree, looking at the branches. “We don’t have any trees on the prison grounds.”

Several friends and supporters greeted Lisker, 44, after he was released from the prison in Ione, southeast of Sacramento. One friend had gone to a department store to buy clothes that Lisker could change into before leaving the prison.

Lisker1.RCG Paul Ingels, Lisker’s private investigator who has worked on the case for more than a decade, called his client’s release “one of the best days of my life.”

Lisker was released on bail at 7 a.m., a week after a federal judge overturned his murder conviction, ruling that he was prosecuted with “false evidence” and his defense attorney did not adequately represent him. The judge's findings mirrored those of a seven-month Times investigation published in 2005, which raised questions about key elements of the prosecution's case against Lisker and exposed the LAPD's investigation into the slaying of his mother as sloppy and incomplete.

Ultimately, Lisker’s freedom will be influenced by what government lawyers decide to do next. They could appeal the judge’s decision to overturn his conviction, retry Lisker for his mother’s killing or drop the case altogether.

After making his brief statement, Lisker declined to discuss his case in detail on advice of his attorneys, who were gearing up for a possible retrial. He jumped into the front seat of Ingels’ truck and headed back to Southern California, where he must live as a condition of his release.

Before embarking on the long trip, Lisker and his friends planned to have breakfast at an International House of Pancakes to satisfy a craving Lisker has had for many years. He said he fondly remembers the smell of maple syrup from the restaurant where he used to go with his parents when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

For Lisker, memories of life outside prison stop at age 17, when he was arrested for killing his mother in the family’s Sherman Oaks home. At the time, he was a skinny, frizzy-haired teenager with a drug habit and a bad attitude. Ronald Reagan was president and gallon of gas cost about $1.25.

151152.ME.0811.chino05 Today, Lisker is a middle-aged man with a shaved head who says he intends to make the most of his time out of custody. Though most of his relatives have died, Lisker has maintained a network of friends and supporters over the years through phone calls and letters.

In the short term, Lisker has said in interviews with The Times that he wanted to go for bike rides on the beach and smell the ocean breeze, eat a bowl of French vanilla ice cream and go running in a straight line for as far as he wants to without having to jog in circles like he did in prison. He needs to apply for a driver’s license, get a copy of his Social Security number and birth certificate so he can find a job — another condition of his bail. While in prison he completed educational programs on being a paralegal and working on computers, which is hopes will help him in today’s job market.

Though he is no longer in prison, Lisker is not a free man. He must be in federal court Monday to go over the terms of his release with U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips, who overturned his conviction. Additionally, the district attorney has filed court papers ordering Lisker to appear in state court Aug. 21, even though a spokeswoman has declined to say whether the office intends to retry Lisker.

Lisker has said he would welcome an opportunity to clear his name once and for all. On March 10, 1983, there was good reason to suspect that he might have committed the crime. He had a history of drug abuse and fighting with his mother. His parents had paid for him to live in a studio apartment several miles from the family's home.

And, he was the first to report to authorities that his mother had been beaten and stabbed. He told police that he went to his parents' home to borrow a jack so he could fix his car. While there, he said, he looked through windows at the back of the house and saw his mother lying on the floor. Because the doors were locked, Lisker said, he broke in to tend to her.

She was still alive but had been badly beaten and stabbed in the back. He called for paramedics. The detective in the case didn't believe him and arrested him that day. The prosecution's case at the time hinged largely on four elements: Blood spatter on Lisker's clothes implicated him; police believed it impossible for him to have seen his mother lying on the floor from outside the house; he confessed to a jailhouse informant; and police said bloody shoe prints placed only him at the scene.

At an evidentiary hearing in federal court, each of those elements was seriously undermined or disproved. For example, an LAPD analyst and an FBI expert testified that a bloody footprint found in the bathroom of the Lisker house and attributed to Lisker at trial was, in fact, not made by Lisker's shoes. Additionally, that print appeared to match an apparent shoe impression on the victim's head, according to the LAPD analyst.

The attorney general arguing in support of the conviction pointed to confessions that Lisker made while trying to secure a plea deal and while seeking parole. Judge Phillips, in adopting the findings of U.S. Magistrate Ralph Zarefsky, who held the evidentiary hearing, dismissed those confessions, calling them "self-serving when they were made and unaccompanied by verifying details."

Lisker has long said his admissions were bogus and desperate attempts to get out of prison. Phillips and Zarefsky also found that the LAPD detective on the case had inexplicably dismissed another "likely suspect," who lied about his whereabouts at the time of the slaying, admitted being in a knife fight on the day of the crime and acknowledged going to the victim's house and talking to her the day before the slaying.

That suspect, Michael Ryan, who had a long history of violence, later killed himself. Phone records from the Lisker home show that a call was made minutes before the murder -- the number matched that of Ryan's mother, except for the last digit and the area code, which wasn't dialed. "There is a strong suggestion that someone else was responsible for the crime," the judges concluded.

-- Matt Lait in Ione

Photos, from top: Bruce Lisker is embraced by friend and supporter Jenny Giallanza after his release from Mule Creek State Prison today; Lisker leaves prison in his rearview mirror, headed for IHOP; Lisker, right, thanks private investigator Paul Ingels for his help in winning Lisker's freedom at a news conference at a park in Ione. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times