Saturday, October 11, 2014
Free at last!
After serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, Susan Mellen is free at last.
Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said the trial had hinged on a single witness who was a “habitual liar” and claimed Mellen had confessed involvement in the crime. But jurors never learned that the witness’ sister, a Torrance police officer, believed she was a pathological liar or that Torrance police had several years earlier deemed the witness an “unreliable informant.”
The judge said Mellen had received “subpar representation” from a trial attorney who should have conducted a thorough investigation of the witness’ credibility.
“I believe that not only is Ms. Mellen not guilty, I believe based on what I’ve read, she’s innocent, and for that reason I believe the criminal justice system failed,” Arnold said.
“Thank you, your honor, thank you so much,” Mellen, 59, said in a small voice.
“Good luck,” the judge replied.
Mellen was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for soliciting the murder of a homeless man, Richard Daly, at a home in Lawndale, California where she and others were living at the time. Three gang members were subsequently linked to the murder and one of them was convicted of beating Daly to death. One of the others later passed a polygraph in which he admitted that he was present during the murder, but Susan Mellen was not there.
The three causes of this wrongful conviction are:
1) Jailhouse informant perjury;
2) Police and prosecutorial misconduct; and
3) Ineffective assistance of counsel.
The jailhouse informant or ‘snitch’ in this case was a woman named June Patti. People who work in the criminal justice system all know that jailhouse snitch testimony is inherently unreliable because they have powerful motives to lie in order to receive beneficial consequences lightening their load in return for their cooperation and testimony against a defendant. For this reason, I believe no conviction based solely on jailhouse snitch testimony should ever stand.
Mellen’s case is a perfect example of what can go wrong, if jailhouse snitch testimony is admitted to shore up a weak prosecution case.
June Patti testified that Susan Mellen admitted her guilt in the Daly murder while they were together in jail before Mellen’s trial. The lead investigator, LAPD Detective Marcella Winn, and the prosecutor who tried Susan Mellen should have known and likely knew that June Patti was an unreliable witness because she had a long history of providing false tips to law enforcement. For example, Patti’s sister, the Torrance police officer to whom Judge Arnold referred in his comment, now claims that she warned Detective Winn that June Patti was a pathological liar and several years before the murder a narcotics detective for the Torrance Police Department wrote a report in which he said Patti had provided a series of tips that turned out to false.
Police and prosecutors have a duty to investigate the reliability of an informant before putting her on the stand and risk convicting a potentially innocent defendant.
This information was exculpatory evidence that should have been obtained and disclosed to defense counsel before trial pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, and Giglio v. United States. Their failure to obtain and disclose this information to defense counsel was misconduct.
Finally, Mellen’s defense attorney compounded their misconduct by failing to investigate June Patti’s credibility. Her failure constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.
I have often referred to defense counsel as liberty’s last guardian and that statement is certainly true in this case because Susan Mellen is free today due to the efforts of Deirdre O’Connor, an attorney who runs Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization that represents wrongfully convicted innocent people.
Upon her release yesterday after serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, she said,
I always forgave my enemies. Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes thank them because they bring you closer to God.