My ex-wife's new husband spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Now 50, Bruce Lisker was just 17 when he was arrested for the murder of his mother at her home in Los Angeles. Ever since, he has claimed that police detectives not only ignored evidence of his innocence but also fabricated evidence of his 'guilt'. Finally exonerated and released in 2009, Bruce was recently awarded $7.6million compensation by Los Angeles City Council. But how can any amount of money compensate for 26 lost years?
I met up with Bruce and Kara, my ex, (long story, fine now, thanks for asking) when I was working in Hollywood. We had tea at a friend's Malibu beach house. As the sun sparkled on the ocean and we marvelled at a pod of dolphins cresting the waves, it was hard to imagine a starker contrast with the harsh confines of the US prison system in which Bruce had been unjustly incarcerated for more than a quarter of a century. How does anyone deal with such a hammer blow? How do they cope with the fury and frustration? How do they rebuild their life?
Making a Murderer
Millions of us are mesmerised by miscarriages of justice, as evidenced by the huge global audience for Netflix's Making A Murderer, the compelling ten-episode documentary chronicling another true-life horror story. Steven Avery served 18 years behind bars, wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. Championed by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he too was exonerated and released, only to find himself charged almost immediately with the brutal murder of photographer Teresa Halbach and convicted a second time, on (highly) dubious evidence. Along with his co-accused, hapless nephew Brendan Dassey, Avery is currently behind bars with no hope of parole, although the success of Netflix's riveting series has prompted calls to reopen the investigation.
High profile cases
We all remember the headline-grabbing case of Amanda Knox, Rafaelle Sollecito and murder victim Meredith Kercher, back in the news only last week and still the subject of much controversy, especially in Italy. And then there's Adnan Syed, another convicted murderer whose rollercoaster ride through the US criminal justice system was examined in forensic detail in blockbuster podcast Serial and is currently subject to a case review.
But lest we in the UK are in danger of feeling smug about our own criminal justice system, there's a long 'roll-call of dishonour' closer to home. Familiar names include Barry George, wrongly convicted of murdering TV presenter Jill Dando, and Sion Jenkins, sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his foster daughter, Billie-Jo. Following two appeals and two retrials, Jenkins was finally acquitted after six years in prison. He maintained his innocence throughout.
I believe our fascination with miscarriages of justice is down to three factors:
• A sense of outrage that innocents can find themselves swept up in such nightmarish situations.
• Nagging doubts: are all exonerees really innocent?
• Sheer terror that it could happen to any of us. There but for the grace of God go I...
As I drank tea with Kara and Bruce Lisker, soaking up the Malibu sunshine, the seeds of an idea were sown. Although my psychological thriller Without Trace has absolutely nothing to do with Bruce's case, at the heart of the book is a miscarriage of justice and a single mother, Morgan Vine, doggedly loyal to her childhood sweetheart and desperate to believe that he's innocent of the murder of which he's been convicted. But when he's freed by the Court of Appeal and her own teenage daughter goes missing under mysterious circumstances, Morgan is forced to question everything she thinks she knows about the love of her life. She fought to free him. Now is he free to kill?
Happily, no such questions plague my ex wife and her new husband. The recent announcement of Bruce's $7.6 million settlement from the City of Los Angeles is about much more than money. In the language many cynics and sceptics understand best - hard cash - the award is a cast-iron rebuttal to anyone who persists in believing 'there's no smoke without fire'.
For Kara and Bruce, the blazing inferno has been well and truly extinguished. I hope they live happily ever after.