A woman freed last month after 17 years behind bars for murder was declared factually innocent Friday by a Los Angeles County judge.
"I'm sorry for what happened to you," Judge Mark S. Arnold told Susan Mellen after he issued his ruling in a Torrance courtroom. "It is my wish that you have a happy life … and I suspect this is going to be a far better Thanksgiving than the ones you've had previously."
Arnold's ruling paves the way for Mellen, 59, to receive compensation from the state of $100 for each day she was wrongfully imprisoned — about $600,000. Mellen can also legally answer "no" when asked whether she has ever been charged with a serious crime, and can request that her records be destroyed.
"I feel like I'm flying and having a new adventure," Mellen said outside the courthouse. "I feel like I have wings now."
Arnold's apology, she said, took her by surprise and added to her feelings of gratitude for the judge who ordered her Oct. 10 release.
Since then, Mellen has been living with her oldest daughter and son-in-law and their two children. She sleeps on a pull-out sofa in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment. Financially dependent on her three children, Mellen has said she wants to unburden her family and provide for herself.
In 1998, Mellen was found guilty of the murder of Richard Daly, a 30-year-old transient and father of two. For years she insisted she had nothing to do with the killing.
Her case was resurrected last year by attorney Deirdre O'Connor, who runs Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and overturning wrongful convictions. O'Connor learned that Mellen's case relied on the testimony of a woman named June Patti who was notorious for being dishonest.
Arnold ruled in October that the only evidence against Mellen was the testimony of a "habitual liar" and said the case was "a failure of the criminal justice system," then ordered her freed.
"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," he said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed paperwork earlier this week that called Patti's incriminating testimony "doubtful" and said it would not stand in the way of Mellen's petition for factual innocence — a distinction made for accused criminals who don't merely have charges dropped due to lack of evidence, but who have proven there is no actual evidence of guilt.
Mellen — who had been incarcerated at a state prison in Chowchilla —- now spends her days baby-sitting her toddler grandson and enjoying simple pleasures, like going grocery shopping and stopping at the park. Her newfound freedom to raid the refrigerator, she joked, has added to her weight gain, and she has learned how to send text messages.
According to O'Connor, it could take months for Mellen to receive her state money, after a victim compensation board verifies the amount. The attorney said Mellen was also looking into the possibility of a civil suit.