After 17 years in prison, Susan Mellen who was found guilty in 1998 of the murder of her ex-boyfriend is free, after her conviction was overturned this week. A Los Angeles County judge threw out the conviction because it hinged on a witness who was known to be an “unreliable informant.” Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said that not only did he believe Mellen was not guilty but that the criminal justice system failed.
Richard Daly, Mellen’s ex-boyfriend, was bludgeoned to death and set on fire in 1997. A known drug user, June Patti, told police that Mellen, a mother of three, confessed to the crime to her. However, Patti’s own sister, a police officer, told authorities at the time of the investigation that her sister was a pathological liar. In fact, June Patti had been known as an unreliable witness who made constant calls to the police with unsubstantiated tips. Still, based on Patti’s testimony, Mellen was found guilty by a jury after less than five hours of deliberation and later sentenced to life without parole. The jury never heard that Patti had previously been deemed an unreliable witness only five years earlier in another case. Patti eventually moved to Washington state where she made over 2,000 calls to police before her death in 2006. This week, Judge Arnold noted that Mellen had sub par counsel and the jury should have known about Patti’s checkered past.
Before Mellen’s murder conviction was overturned after 17 years behind bars, three alleged gang members were linked to the crime. One was convicted of the killing and another passed a lie detector test this year where he admitted being present at the time of the murder and stated that Mellen was not there.
Mellen’s case came to the attention of the court with the help of Innocence Matters, a volunteer innocence project in Torrance, California run by former Los Angeles public defender Deirdre O’Connor. It was O’Connor who tracked down the gang member who was present at the murder and who passed the polygraph test stating the fact of his presence and the fact that Mellen was not there. O’Connor has said that she is “overjoyed” that Mellen can now be reunited with her children.
It was not only O’Connor who came to Mellen’s aid. Another program called Friend-2-Friend that matches prisoners and members of the community hooked up 71-year-old Sandra Barbano and Mellen. The two exchanged letters over the course of eight years and Barbano describes Mellen as upbeat and never bitter, comfortable in the fact that Mellen herself knows she is innocent of murder. Barbano was at the hearing this week and stated that Barbano is now also “at peace” knowing that Mellen is free.
After the murder conviction was overturned, the courtroom appeared to be a different scene than it was 17 years ago. Along with balloons and “Welcome Home” signs, Mellen was greeted by over 30 friends and relatives who were clapping and cheering over her release. When Mellen was arrested, her youngest children were only seven and nine. Now, they are adults and one daughter was even honored by Innocence Matters for her work in helping to free her mother. One of the things Mellen says she is looking forward to is helping to plan her daughter’s wedding. She was also able to finally hold and hug her 19-month-old grandson for the first time.
By Jennifer Fernicola Ronay