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Witness' dubious history puts a 16-year-old murder conviction in doubt

June Patti had a hunger to be heard.

A large woman with scarlet-dyed hair and a loud, raspy voice, Patti was a known drug addict who presented herself as a paralegal. Raised in the Redondo Beach area, she moved to northwest Washington state in the 1990s and soon became a local fixture, quick to phone law enforcement. One year she called 800 times, recalled Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt.

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For a decade, Patti was involved in more than 2,000 police calls or cases in the county. She was accused of theft, trespassing, fraud and harassment in some, but many incidents involved her complaints and tips about other people.

The Skagit County public defender's office even kept a document known as "the June Patti brief" that included observations that Patti was not credible. It was filed whenever Patti's name was mentioned in a case.

"We would get dismissals based on our June Patti brief alone," said Keith Tyne, the office's director. "June needed to occupy the center stage and nothing helps like claiming to be a victim or a witness."

Patti as a credible witness was a "laughable" idea, Tyne said.

But not in Los Angeles County.

Sixteen years ago, Patti's testimony in a murder trial in a Torrance courtroom helped send a woman to prison for life.

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In August 1997, Patti reached out to a Los Angeles police detective with a tip.

A month earlier, a trash fire had been reported in a San Pedro neighborhood alley.

When the flames were extinguished, investigators discovered the body of a man whose skull had been smashed in multiple places with a hammer. His jaw clenched a red-and-black woolen scarf that had been shoved down his throat. Remnants of denim from his jeans and black canvas from his sneakers clung to his burned flesh.

He was identified as Richard James Daly, a 30-year-old transient and father of two. Detectives soon determined that Daly had been killed elsewhere, and traced the killing to a Lawndale property on Firmona Avenue with two houses. One was vacant and known as a meet-up place for drug addicts and gang members.

Multiple informants identified three alleged Lawndale 13 gang members as suspects.

But Patti had a different story. She claimed an acquaintance named Susan Mellen had confessed to the crime.

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Patti once was among the regular cast of characters who flocked to the property on Firmona that locals had dubbed the Mellen Patch. She had been living in Burlington, Wash., but around the time of the Daly murder, she happened to be in California, staying at a Torrance motel.

She told police that she had phoned Mellen to buy methamphetamine. Mellen, she said, asked for legal advice and confided that she was partly responsible for Daly's death.

Mellen told her that she and her boyfriend had arrived at the Mellen Patch — the childhood home where she still kept belongings — to find Daly asleep in the vacant house. Angry that he had stolen speed and clothing from them, the couple enlisted a Lawndale 13 gang member and they began beating Daly. Mellen kicked him and taped his mouth, Patti said.

Patti seemed credible to police as she described details of the killing that had not been made public, including that Daly had been gagged and dumped near a trash container. Mellen was arrested less than two weeks later, and Patti became the prosecution's star witness at the 1998 trial.

But on the stand, her story about Mellen's confession changed.

She testified that Mellen and Daly had been caught in a compromising position by her boyfriend at the Mellen Patch. The boyfriend struck Daly with a hammer and a gang member finished the beating in exchange for a quarter-ounce of dope. Patti said that Mellen admitted that she had stuffed a bandanna down Daly's throat and super-glued his mouth.

"I hid the facts from the police that Ms. Mellen had told me because I didn't want to crucify her," Patti said on the stand.

Mellen acknowledged that she was at the home before the killing but testified that she had spent the evening moving into a rental house in Gardena. Her boyfriend's father testified that he helped her move.

Her defense was overseen by a divorce attorney who had been disciplined by the state bar for failing to perform legal services competently. He had taken the job at the request of Mellen's mother, a friend. The entire case, he said, rested on Patti's word.

The prosecutor argued that Patti had no motive to lie. She added that Mellen never told detectives about her alibi when she was interviewed, and her boyfriend's father came forward only days before the trial.

After less than five hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

At her sentencing, Mellen insisted that she was innocent. "I don't understand why I'm being put in the fire, why this woman lied and told the things that she said that are so evil."

Patti returned to Washington with her boyfriend, Dean Troke. The two appeared on Sally Jesse Raphael's talk show in 2000, in an episode about cheating lovers. "Marry me or get out," Patti demanded of Troke. When he balked, she marched off the stage to much applause.

Troke was killed in a 2006 car accident. Patti was 43 when she died around the same time. Sick with cancer, her lung collapsed after she smoked crack cocaine.

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By then, Mellen had spent nearly a decade in prison. During the first years of her sentence, she walked around in a daze, afraid of some of her fellow inmates.

The youngest of five, she had graduated from North High in Torrance and once aspired to be a preschool teacher.

But by the time she hit 30, Mellen had begun to smoke crystal meth. Cleaning houses for a living, she sometimes sold dope to make extra cash. She hid the habit from her three children. They recalled that she was a gentle, doting mother who sang oldies in the car.

In prison, she made friends at Bible studies and started a prayer circle.

"I didn't want this nightmare to take over my life and make me pitiful or bitter," she would say later. "Lifers are not happy people. I didn't want to be like them."

Often she took a black marker and wrote a word on the bottom of her sneakers: freedom.

Her children resented her absence from pivotal moments in their lives: Julie's wedding and the birth of her son, Donald's football games and naval boot camp graduation, Jessica's prom and engagement.

But they believed in their mother and were heartened by her dogged hope.

Mellen filed appeals, and saw each denied.

Then, last November, Deirdre O'Connor took on Mellen's case.

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A 52-year-old former public defender with a straightforward demeanor, O'Connor leads Innocence Matters — a tiny Torrance-based nonprofit devoted to overturning and preventing wrongful convictions.

She came across Mellen's name while researching a different case and the two met at a state prison in Chowchilla. The prisoner's buoyancy caught O'Connor off-guard.

"We expect different from people who have been convicted," O'Connor said. "Just trying to live her life with joy — I would be consumed with anger and living in my head."

O'Connor learned about Patti's checkered past in Washington, as well as details that jurors had never heard about her reputation in Los Angeles County.

Nearly five years before Mellen was convicted, a Torrance police narcotics investigator had deemed Patti an "unreliable informant."

He wrote that Patti had provided a series of tips, virtually none of which had any truth to them. Patti's information was "exaggerated and to some extent untruthful." Her use of drugs, he wrote, seemed to have affected her memory and perceptions, and she said things she thought he wanted to hear.

Patti had also tormented her boyfriend's brother with false accusations. Twice, she called the L.A. County Sheriff's Department on Dan Troke, accusing him of harassing her. Troke told The Times that Patti often called and threatened to kill his children and burn down his house.

"No one ever came to talk to me," he said, referring to the time of Mellen's trial. "I would have told them what she was like, that I wouldn't believe her for anything."

Patti's own sister, a Torrance police officer, described her to O'Connor as a drug user and pathological liar. The sister also recently informed the district attorney's office that she told the same 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.

Winn said she does not recall speaking to Patti's sister. She stands by her investigation of Mellen. "She was part of this murder, whether she conspired with them or got people to do it," Winn said.

An acquaintance of Mellen's put O'Connor in touch with Santo Alvarez, one of the three alleged Lawndale 13 gang members police reports identified as suspects in the case. In separate trials for Daly's murder, Chad Landrum received life without parole and another suspect was acquitted. Alvarez was never charged.

O'Connor recently filed court documents asking that Mellen's conviction be overturned. The records contend that Alvarez told O'Connor and one of Mellen's daughters that he was there when Daly was killed but Mellen was not. The filing cited a transcript of a polygraph exam that Alvarez passed earlier this year.

"She had nothing to do with it. She wasn't there. She wasn't involved," the document quoted Alvarez as saying. Alvarez could not be reached for comment.

Spurred by O'Connor's work, the district attorney's office is conducting its own probe. A spokeswoman would say only that the case is under review.

Dan Troke and Daly's mother said that a prosecutor told them Mellen may have been wrongly imprisoned and could be released.

Susan Daly said she wouldn't fight the decision. "I don't want anybody in jail that doesn't belong there," she said.

Moved to a county jail in July, Mellen continues to wait to hear whether a court will overturn her conviction.

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Mellen's blond hair has grayed. The 59-year-old's voice is soft but confident.

"In prison you have to speak up for yourself and be strong," she said in a recent interview as she sat behind a glass partition at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood. "That changed me."

She denied any involvement in Daly's killing and said she wants to move past the early years she spent despising the woman who helped incarcerate her for the last 17 years.

People always ask her why Patti would place her at the scene of the crime. Mellen usually answers that it might have been jealousy or anger or narcissism, but always ends with the same conclusion. She will never really know.

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