That August day began with a simple promise: A Happy Meal for a daughter.
It was a Monday morning, and Susan Mellen and 9-year-old Jessica got into their white sedan to head to the neighborhood McDonald's in Gardena.
When they arrived, a 17-year legal nightmare began. Two LAPD detectives arrested Mellen on suspicion of killing an ex-boyfriend.
"Don't worry, baby, I'm just going to answer some questions and I'll be home for dinner," Mellen told her daughter.
Mellen never returned. A year later, a jury convicted her of murder.
On Friday, in the same Torrance courtroom where she was sentenced to life in prison without parole, Mellen was ordered released by a different judge who threw out her 1998 conviction.
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.
More than three dozen of Mellen's friends and family clapped and cheered afterward. Some cried and dabbed at their eyes. One held balloons that read "Welcome Home!"
Outside the courtroom, Mellen's three children waited anxiously for her release.
"It's been a miserable road," Jessica Besch, now 26, said. "Knowing that my mom's been innocent [from] Day One has been the hardest part."
Realizing she would soon hug her mother outside of prison, she said, "felt like a dream."
Her brother Donald, 25, showed off a tattoo of a broken heart he had put on his chest as a teenager, a symbol of how he felt growing up without a mother.
The two were raised at one point by their older sister, Julie Carroll, and a stepsister. Carroll attended her mother's trial and broke the news afterward to her siblings that their mother would be imprisoned for life.
Which is what made Friday's events so hard to believe, the 39-year-old teacher said. "I'm still in shock," Carroll said.
When Mellen emerged, she told reporters she did not feel anger despite her ordeal. "I don't understand how they kept me — how they put me away," she said. "It's crazy. It was cruel punishment."
Mellen's case was resurrected last year by an attorney who runs Innocence Matters, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing and overturning wrongful convictions. Deirdre O'Connor learned that Mellen's trial relied on the testimony of June Patti. LAPD investigators considered Patti credible at the time because she described details of the July 1997 killing that had not been made public.
But Patti had a reputation for dishonesty — a history outlined in a Times story last week. Several years before Mellen's trial, a Torrance police narcotics investigator wrote in a report that Patti had provided a series of tips, virtually none of which had any truth to them.
Another Torrance police officer, Patti's sister, described her as a pathological liar and recently informed the district attorney's office that she told the same thing in 1997 to the lead LAPD detective handling the murder case.
LAPD Det. Marcella Winn previously told The Times that she had no recollection of talking to Patti's sister, and said she stood by her investigation and believed that Mellen was involved in the killing. She did not return calls Friday seeking comment.
Patti moved to Skagit County in Washington state, where she was involved in more than 2,000 police calls or cases before her 2006 death. The public defender's office kept a document known as "the June Patti brief" that would be filed whenever her name was involved in a case. Patti as a credible witness was a "laughable" idea, the office's director told The Times.
O'Connor also tracked down one of three alleged Lawndale 13 gang members whom police reports initially identified as suspects in the case. Santo Alvarez passed a polygraph exam this year in which he admitted that he was present during the 1997 killing but Mellen was not, according to court records submitted by O'Connor.
Spurred by O'Connor's investigation, the district attorney's office began its own review in February. It submitted a document Friday that said it found Patti's testimony "doubtful" but would not comment further.
The victim's mother said the news of Mellen's release brought up painful memories of her deceased son, Rick. "I hope that she is innocent," Susan Daly said.
Among the group who waited to see Mellen walk out of the courtroom was Sandra Barbano, who has spent the last eight years visiting Mellen at a Chowchilla prison. The two were matched up through a program that pairs prisoners with community members.
"Not one time did I ever hear a bitter word from her," said Barbano, 71, who drove from her home in Fresno for the hearing. "I've never met anyone like Susan Mellen."
Joni Hilliard, 56, grew up with Mellen, but lost touch with her over the years. A decade ago, she learned of Mellen's prison sentence. "Our justice system, it sickens me," Hilliard said. "I couldn't understand it. Susie couldn't kill a bug."
In an interview with The Times last month, Mellen said her life sentence had been devastating, but she insisted on maintaining a positive attitude about her future. She started a prayer circle, attended Bible studies and mentored inmates.
"I was in prison but I didn't let prison live in me," she said. "I wanted to be free no matter what."
Mellen and her children are now focused on plans that are simple but greater than they once dreamed. A day at the beach. A trip to