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Two of Los Angeles' Biggest Wrongful Conviction Cases Exemplify the Justice System's Biggest Errors

Together, the exonerated men have spent 60 years in prison.
Bruce Lisker listens in Superior Court on August 21, 2009, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Luis Sinco-Pool/Getty Images)

Bruce Lisker listens in Superior Court on August 21, 2009, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Luis Sinco-Pool/Getty Images)

The city of Los Angeles agreed Tuesday to pay a total of $24 million to two men who were wrongfully convicted of murder. Combined, the men have spent six decades in prison, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The two men's cases were unrelated, but in the lawsuits that won their settlements, both Kash Register and Bruce Lisker accused the Los Angeles Police Department of similar wrongdoing: fabricating evidence and poor police work. Register and Lisker provide dramatic examples of some of the problems in America's justice system, which crime journalist Sue Russell covered for Pacific Standard in 2012. As Russell wrote, "Wrongful convictions stem from the belated entrance of scientific rigor into the field of forensics, systemic problems, and the ubiquitous 'human factor.'" You'll see examples of all three in Register's and Lisker's cases.

Register's conviction hinged "almost entirely" on two eyewitnesses who identified him in line-ups, according to then-director of the Loyola Project for the Innocent, Lara Bazelon. Three decades after that conviction, the Loyola Project took on Register's case, building its defense on the idea that those identifications were unreliable. Eyewitness identifications are subject to a number of biases because it's easy for police and friends to sway witnesses' memories, consciously or unconsciously. At the time of Russell's reporting, misidentification was "the single biggest common denominator in wrongful convictions, and a factor in 72 percent of cases overturned by DNA nationwide." Yet before recent reform, juries weren't informed of the science demonstrating just how fallible eyewitness memory can be.

In Register's case, Sheila Vanderkam, the sister of one of the eyewitnesses contacted Register's lawyer to say her sister had lied in her testimony. Vanderkam had tried to tell a detective this information earlier, but "she says [the detective] responded by placing his finger over his lips and saying 'ssshhh,'" according to Bazelon. When contacted by the Loyola Project, the other eyewitness said he did not remember anything about the shooting for which Register was convicted, or about testifying at Register's trial. The judge who re-heard Register's case decided neither of the original witnesses were credible.

Lisker's case depended on more pieces of evidence, but reporting by the Los Angeles Times found "the murder investigation was sloppy and incomplete." At the time of his conviction, Lisker told detectives he had found his mother stabbed in the back and tried to help her. They didn't believe him. Instead, they were "immediately suspicious" of him.

Such a build-up of errors is not surprising, as Russell reported:

If detectives lock in on a suspect too early, cautions Itiel Dror of the University College of London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, tunnel vision kicks in along with 'escalation of commitment' to their conclusions. And through confirmation bias, the brain seeks facts that confirm existing beliefs while it discounts or disregards information that conflicts.

Meanwhile, many errors in an investigation are effectively buried before a case goes to trial, says [clinical law professor Steven] Drizin. They're simply invisible to the types and level of scrutiny a case typically receives as it works its way through the system.

How to fix an error as human and universal as confirmation bias? Russell suggests training detectives and forensic scientists not only how to avoid mistakes, but also to detect and recover from them. She also suggests pushing judges', lawyers', and police's "duty to correct" the record when they find they've erred. In other words, embrace the human factor, and figure out ways to fix it.


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.