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Searching for a hero

As Innocence Matters begins our search for the recipient of this year’s Courageous Truth Award recipient–where we recognize an individual who has taken extraordinary steps to discover and honor the truth despite tremendous pressure and systemic incentives to prematurely settle on a convenient, but distorted version of the truth–I was reminded of the 48 Hours’ story about the Bruce Lisker case.

Many heroes to choose from in Lisker’s case:

Bruce Lisker | Investigator Paul Ingels | LAPD Lt. Jim Gavin

Bruce Lisker

Lisker in 2009

Lisker in 1983

It seems to me that in nearly every wrongful conviction case, one primary contender for recognition of heroism is the falsely condemned.

Typically, they have to withstand years–often decades–of nightmarish existence fighting for their stolen freedom.  Their claims of innocence are rejected time and time again.  Lawyers come and go, often making matters worse.  Loved ones die.  

And hope precariously flutters in and out over the years, through the concertina wire, always in danger of fatal impalement.

As Bruce Lisker put it:

Hope is a very interesting thing.  It’s very dangerous for a prisoner.  If you have it too close, you’ll suffer greatly.  If you let it die, then you begin to die in prison.

Lisker’s torturous 26-year struggle began with his mother’s brutal murder. On March 10, 1983, Bruce, then 17 years old, arrived at his parents’ home to find his mother savagely beaten, still clinging to life with two kitchen knives stuck in her back.  He pulled the knives out and frantically called 911.

Help me, please.  I need an ambulance right now . . . Hurry!  My mom . . . she’s been stabbed.  Oh my God.  Oh my God.  She’s been stabbed.

When the police arrived, his mother was brought to the hospital where she took her last breath while Bruce was taken to the police station, arrested and interrogated for her murder.  The police discovered $150 was missing from the decedent’s purse and surmised the woman was attacked when she tried to prevent the theft.  Bruce told the police he did not kill his mother or try to take her money.  No money was found on Bruce.  Shortly after his arrest, Bruce and his father provided police with a lead on a possible suspect–Mike Ryan, Bruce’s former roommate.  At the time, Ryan was a homeless, drug-addicted juvenile with a criminal record for assaults and robbery.  The police easily confirmed that: in the days leading up to the murder, Ryan was penniless and sleeping on the streets; within a half hour of the Lisker robbery/murder, Ryan suddenly had enough cash to pay for a hotel room; and the morning after the murder, Ryan purchased tickets and fled the state.  Nevertheless, the lead detective, Andrew R. Monsue, never seriously considered Ryan a suspect and promptly cleared Ryan of any involvement.  Monsue focused all of his efforts on building a case against Bruce, and, in the process, overlooked critical evidence confirming Ryan’s guilt.

Bruce spent the next 26 years trying to get somebody to know the truth. (Sadly, this was a case where the truth should not have been so hard to find.  We’ll take a closer look at what went wrong in a follow-up post.  Back to our heroes . . .)

 [The case] consumed me. I mean, it consumed all of my time. It was my every focus.

Bruce’s father believed in his innocence and was Bruce’s primary advocate and partner in the struggle for freedom until he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1995.  Prison officials denied Bruce’s request for a furlough to attend his father’s funeral.  Bruce found himself alone in his quest for justice, that is, until he met “his angel” four years later.  Together, they would discover the proof of Monsue’s lies.

Private Investigator Paul Ingels

In 1999, sixteen years after his mother’s death, Bruce used some of the money his father left him to hire a private investigator, Paul Ingels, a.k.a., Bruce’s angel.  Although Ingels would ultimately invest 10 years helping Bruce, he started out as a skeptic.

If you’re to believe what these officers are saying on the stand, he’s guilty. He was guilty… guilty as the day is long.

via Man imprisoned for 26 years; Did an LAPD cop lie? – CBS News.

As Ingels began to compare the forensic evidence with Det. Monsue’s testimony, he discovered one discrepancy after another.  Significant discrepancies, such as, Bruce’s “bloody” t-shirt that the detective described to jurors, in fact, did not have a drop of blood on it.  And that was just one of many distortions and false statements purportedly made by Det. Monsue.  Soon, Ingels’ skepticism was replaced with outrage and steadfast determination to help Bruce.

Monsue’s a liar.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Monsue’s a liar.

In Ingels’ view, his investigation had yielded considerable proof of Monsue’s lies, but more was needed to establish Bruce’s innocence.

I would wake up at three in the morning trying to figure out how to get my hands on the evidence to prove that Bruce Lisker was innocent.

One early morning, Ingels got an idea–admittedly, one with very little real hope of working.  But Ingels was convinced it was worth a shot.  He encouraged Bruce to file an internal affairs complaint against Monsue based on the evidence that he and Bruce had developed of Monsue’s many lies and distortions.  Ingels hoped that the complaint would land on the desk of someone within the Los Angeles Police Department who had integrity and an open mind.  This idea put into motion a chain of events that would eventually free Bruce.

Ingels was tenacious throughout.  In 2004, when it looked like they might have hit a wall, Ingels brought the case to the attention of Scott Glover and Matt Lait, two award-winning investigative reporters at the Los Angeles Times.  Their seven-month investigation, as reported in New Light on a Distant Verdict, produced critical evidence that someone other than Bruce murdered his mother which ultimately undermined the trial prosecutor’s confidence in the verdict.

LAPD Lieutenant Jim Gavin

I lived and breathed the LAPD, and I believed in the criminal justice system until the case of Bruce Lisker came across my desk. And that changed me forever.

Bruce’s complaint to Internal Affairs landed on then-Sergeant Jim Gavin’s desk, a dedicated officer who took his job to heart.  Gavin was not going to be an easy sell for some guilty person with an implausible story of police misconduct.

[Gavin] was skeptical at first. But he was not the sort to ignore a complaint, even one from a prisoner.

Gavin read the transcript of Lisker’s trial and listened to Monsue’s taped interviews with Bruce and with Ryan. He spent hours poring over documents compiled by Lisker’s defense team. He twice went to Mule Creek Prison to interview Lisker.

via New Light on a Distant Verdict – latimes.com.

In particular, he was troubled by a letter Det. Monsue wrote the parole board wherein Monsue claimed that the new owners of the Lisker house found the stolen money hidden in the house.  Ingels provided an affidavit from the new owners refuting any such discovery, a statement which they confirmed when Gavin interviewed them.  Moreover, Gavin could find no proof that Monsue ever booked the money into evidence, as he would be required to do.

[Submitting a false report to the parole board] is very serious… If [Monsue] lied here, there is a possibility that he may have lied in other places.

Then Gavin discovered the most critical piece of evidence, an autopsy photograph showing what looked like a shoe print on the decedent’s head.  Only the killer would have inflicted this injury.  Lisker’s shoe did not match.  Gavin no longer questioned Lisker’s innocence.  However, Gavin was forced to terminate the investigation before this critical evidence had been fully developed and turned over to Lisker’s defense team.  It’s what Gavin did next that makes him a hero in my book: he defied the chain of command and turned the evidence over to the defense!  Both he and his wife (also an LAPD officer) were ostracized by their colleagues and, for a while, Gavin faced disciplinary charges.  Gavin’s only reward: he can sleep at night knowing he did the right thing.

The Innocent generally need a team of heroes

Lisker is free today because he had the courage to fight the fight for 26 years.  He is free because he had people like Inv. Paul Ingels, who provided zealous advocacy and refused to give up until the truth was known.  But, ultimately, Lisker is free because LAPD Lt. Gavin conducted himself with the utmost integrity when it would have been much easier for him if he turned a blind eye.

Our system of justice is so easily derailed by the personal agendas of people who rather win than remain objective and loyal to the search for truth.  Indeed, it happens with such frequency and institutional backing that when someone actually performs their job as it was intended, with integrity and dedication, against tremendous systemic pressure to conform to the norm, we see them as heroes.  And they are. They inspire the rest of us to act with more integrity.  And for that, we honor them.

Help us learn about today’s heroes so that we can honor them.  Tell us about them in the comment section or nominate them for the Courageous Truth Award.  Nominations open until February 24.