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Woman behind bars 17 years walks free after judge says she's innocent

After 17 years behind bars for murder, Susan Mellen is released

A woman convicted of murder and imprisoned for 17 years walked out of a Torrance courthouse Friday after a judge called her life sentence “a failure of the criminal justice system” and ordered her release.

Susan Mellen, 59, was embraced by her three children who had waited more than eight hours after the morning hearing for the prison detainer to be lifted.

"We're going to have a new beginning," she told reporters at a news conference where she was flanked by her children and other supporters.

Mellen credited her religious faith with helping her as she served a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. She said she inked the bottom of her prison-issued sneakers with the word "Freedom" but did not feel anger about her ordeal.

"I always forgave my enemies," she said. "Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes thank them because they bring you closer to God."

Nevertheless, she said she did not understand how the justice system could have convicted her.

"They didn't believe in my innocence, and they didn’t listen to the truth," she said. "I don’t understand how they .. put me away. It’s crazy. It was cruel punishment."

At one point during Mellen's news conference, someone handed her a cellphone, which she said was her first. She said adjusting to her life of freedom would be overwhelming.

Hours earlier, in the same Torrance courtroom where she had been sentenced in 1998, a different judge threw out her 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.

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."

For more Los Angeles County court news, follow @corinaknoll. She can be reached at corina.knoll@latimes.com.

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