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. A finding of factual innocence basically means that the defendant did not commit the crime even if found guilty at trial.
Mellen can also answer "no" when asked if she has ever been charged with a serious crime and request that her records be sealed or destroyed.
Since her Oct. 10 release, Mellen has been living with one of her daughters, sleeping 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 Rick 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 her case was "a failure of the criminal justice system" just before he 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.