My fascination with miscarriages of justice

Simon Booker’s ex-wife’s new husband spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and it’s a theme in both his books

Simon Booker: I know I’m far from alone in my obsession with wrongful convictions

Simon Booker: I know I’m far from alone in my obsession with wrongful convictions

 

“Write what you know,” they say. OK – how about a novel featuring my ex-wife’s new husband, Bruce Lisker, who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit?

A harrowing true story, it’s a saga for Bruce to tell in detail, not me, and I hope one day he will. Meanwhile, his extraordinary case chimes with my own lifelong fascination with miscarriages of justice, an interest that has so far spawned two Morgan Vine thrillers – 2016’s Without Trace and now Kill Me Twice.

At the heart of both novels is 38-year-old Morgan, a single mother and investigative journalist obsessed with miscarriages of justice partly because of an episode in her own family’s dark past. Without Trace sees her trying to figure out if her childhood sweetheart has grown into a devious killer or is an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned for murder. In Kill Me Twice she’s trying to prove the innocence of a woman convicted of killing the father of her baby. Both cases are entirely fictional, unlike Bruce Lisker’s story, which is all too real. I’m glad to report that he’s now a free man and living happily-ever-after in the US with my ex, Kara. (Our divorce was a lifetime ago, we’re on good terms, thanks for asking.)

Some years ago, when Bruce was already 22 years into a life sentence for the murder of his mother, Kara read in the Los Angeles Times about his battle for justice. She whipped out her chequebook and sent a few dollars to a fund that was raising money to help cover costs for the lawyer and investigators who were fighting to overturn Bruce’s conviction. Aged just 17, he had returned home one day to discover his mother’s dead body on the floor of their home in Sherman Oaks, California. She had been stabbed multiple times. Bruce had been in trouble with the police for smoking weed. The LAPD decided he was guilty of murder so he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to life behind bars. Right from day one he protested his innocence but to no avail.

Among the articles of faith that kept Bruce going throughout his ordeal was the determination to clear his name, to fight for compensation and eventually use some of the proceeds to buy himself a beautiful white Mercedes. After many years of struggle he was finally exonerated, freed from prison and awarded $7.6 million by the City of Los Angeles. Sounds a lot? How on earth do you put a value on 26 lost years – especially as half of his settlement went to the lawyers and investigators who had championed his cause?

While working in Hollywood some years ago, I had a memorable Malibu lunch with Kara and Bruce. I was immediately struck by his paper-white pallor. I guess he hadn’t seen much daylight during those 26 years of incarceration. During our encounter, he was thoroughly charming and excellent company. Six years on, he and Kara are deservedly happy and making a new life together. And having finally bought that white Mercedes, Bruce now gets up at 5am every morning and drives around the deserted freeways and canyons of Los Angeles, so at least his story has something like a happy ending.

Although my Morgan Vine novels have nothing to do with Bruce’s case, the theme of miscarriages of justice runs through both books like lettering through a stick of rock and I know I’m far from alone in my obsession with wrongful convictions. Think of high-profile cases like that of Amanda Knox or, more controversially, Steven Avery, subject of the hit Netflix series, Making A Murderer. He’s still behind bars, awaiting a re-investigation of his case.

I believe our fascination with miscarriages of justice is due to three factors. 1) A sense of outrage that innocent people can find themselves swept up in such nightmarish situations. 2) Nagging doubts: are all exonerees really innocent? 3) Terror that it could happen to anybody. There but for the grace of God go I...

  • Kill Me Twice was published by Bonnier Zaffre on August 24th. simonbooker.com
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