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Woman expecting prison release in 1997 murder she says she didn't commit

Woman expecting prison release in 1997 murder she says she didn't commit
Susan Mellen, shown in 1997, was convicted of murder the following year. At her sentencing, she insisted she was innocent. (Mellen family)

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has decided not to oppose a request to throw out the murder conviction of a woman who has spent more than 17 years behind bars for a crime she said she didn't commit, according to the woman's lawyer.

Attorney Deirdre O'Connor said a prosecutor told her his office would file paperwork Friday in a Torrance courtroom that would clear the way for Susan Mellen's release.

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A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office confirmed that Mellen is scheduled to be in court Friday morning, but would not comment on the nature of the appearance.

In 1997, Susan Mellen was accused of beating a former boyfriend to death. Richard Daly's body was discovered set on fire in a San Pedro alley.

The star witness at the trial was June Patti, who said Mellen had confessed to Daly's murder. A known drug addict who presented herself as a paralegal, Patti was credible to police because she described details of the killing that had not been made public. After less than five hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mellen was sentenced to life without parole.

But jurors never heard about Patti's reputation as a notorious liar, a history outlined in a Times story last week. A Torrance police narcotics investigator had deemed Patti an "unreliable informant" nearly five years before Mellen was convicted. 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."

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 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 died in 2006. Throughout the decade she spent there, she 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.  "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."

O'Connor, who leads Innocence Matters, began looking into Mellen's case last November and was put in touch with one of the three alleged Lawndale 13 gang members that police reports initially identified as suspects in the case. In separate trials for Daly's murder, one received life without parole and another was acquitted. The third, Santo Alvarez, was never charged.

Court records filed by O'Connor on behalf of Mellen contend that Alvarez passed a polygraph exam earlier this year in which he said he was there when Daly was killed but Mellen was not. O'Connor's investigation spurred the district attorney's office to conduct its own review.

O'Connor informed Mellen's three children Wednesday night that their mother was expected to be freed.

"It was the best news I've ever had in my life," said Mellen's daughter, Jessica, 26. "This morning I woke up and I was excited but nervous. I just feel like until she walks out that door it's not going to be real."

Mellen herself learned the news Thursday morning. "She was just in tears," O'Connor said. "Very excited and all kinds of nervous energy – jumping around, crying and laughing at the same time."

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

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