Describing the case as a failure of the criminal justice system, a Los Angeles County judge on Friday threw out the murder conviction of a woman who has spent more than 17 years behind bars for a crime that he said she did not commit.
The judge said the only evidence against Susan Mellen during her 1998 trial was the testimony of "a habitual liar" who claimed that Mellen had confessed her involvement in the killing of a former boyfriend.
"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," said Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold.
Arnold said Mellen had received "subpar representation" from her defense attorney, who he said should have conducted a thorough investigation of the witness' credibility. Had the attorney done so, jurors would not have found Mellen guilty, said Arnold, who ordered that Mellen be released.
"Thank you your honor, thank you so much," Mellen said in a small voice.
"Good luck," the judge told her.
More than three dozen friends and relatives of Mellen's clapped and cheered. One held balloons that said "Welcome home!"
Among them was Sandra Barbano, a retired political aide who has spent the last eight years visiting her at a Chowchilla prison. The two were matched up through an outside program that pairs prisoners with community members. There was an immediate connection.
"What an experience it has been," said Barbano, who drove down from her Fresno home for the hearing. "I've gotten so much more than I could give to her — her upbeat attitude and inspiration. Not one time did I ever hear a bitter word from her. I've never met anyone like Susan Mellen."
The 71-year-old wrote Mellen weekly letters and visited her each month.
"She knows in her heart that she's innocent," Barbano said. "I feel at peace to know that freedom has come to her life."
Mellen's case was resurrected last year by a lawyer who runs a small innocence project in Torrance. The attorney, Deirdre O'Connor, learned that the trial's star witness was a known liar with a checkered past.
"I'm so overwhelmed,"; O'Connor said before Friday's court hearing. "I'm looking forward to watching Susan and her kids reconnect. It's really very emotional because I've grown attached to each one of them, and I'm just overjoyed that they're going to be reunited as a family."
O'Connor, who runs Innocence Matters, focused much of her investigation on the trial's main witness, June Patti. Police at the time viewed Patti as credible because she described details of the July 1997 killing that had not been made public. After less than five hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict.
But Patti had a reputation for dishonesty that was outlined in a Los Angeles Times story last week. Jurors in Mellen's case never learned that nearly five years before the trial, Patti had been deemed an "unreliable informant" by a Torrance Police Department narcotics investigator. He wrote in a report that Patti had provided a series of tips, virtually none of which had any truth to them.
Patti's own sister, a Torrance police officer, described her as a pathological liar. She recently informed the district attorney's office that she told the same thing in 1997 to the lead detective handling the murder case. Los Angeles Police Det. Marcella Winn "asked me about my sister and I said, 'My sister is probably the biggest liar I've ever met in my life and if I don't see something happening directly that she's involved in, then I don't believe anything she has to say,'" she said in a recorded interview with a prosecutor and two investigators.
Patti relocated to northwest Washington state where she was involved in more than 2,000 police calls or cases in the county before her 2006 death. Patti as a credible witness was a "laughable" idea, the director of the Skagit County public defender's office recently 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 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 conducted its own review.