A federal appeals court decided Friday to revive a lawsuit against a former LAPD detective who the court said withheld exonerating evidence in a murder case that put an innocent woman behind bars for 17 years.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the suit against former Det. Marcella Winn should be allowed to go to trial.
“The record demonstrates as a matter of law that Detective Winn withheld material impeachment evidence,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the court.
She said the evidence also raised “an issue of material fact as to whether Detective Winn acted with deliberate indifference or reckless disregard.”
Susan Mellen was released from prison in 2014. She and her three children sued Winn, contending the detective had been told a witness against Mellen was “a habitual liar,” but failed to disclose that to the defense.
The 9th Circuit said Mellen was convicted “based solely” on the testimony of June Patti, who claimed that Mellen had confessed to her that she killed Richard Daly. The body of the 30-year-old transient and father of two was found near a trash bin in San Pedro.
Patti’s sister, Laura Patti, a police officer in Torrance at the time, said she told Winn that June was a habitual liar, the court said.
Laura Patti said in a deposition that her conversation with Winn was brief, and that the detective did not ask why she believed June Patti was a liar.
“But it turned out that Laura was right about her sister,” the 9th Circuit said.
She had been deemed an “unreliable informant” by the Torrance Police Department five years before Mellen’s trial, the court said.
“And in a fourteen-year span between 1988 and 2002, Patti had more than 800 contacts with law enforcement, where she was known to exaggerate or outright lie to police officers to protect or advance her own interests,” Wardlaw wrote.
The court said that Winn, who could not be reached for comment, now disputes that she ever spoke with Laura Patti about her sister.
The 9th Circuit said that June Patti changed her story several times over the course of the prosecution, and no fingerprints, DNA evidence or eyewitness testimony linked Mellen to the crime.
Mellen was represented in the trial by a family law lawyer, not a criminal defense attorney.
When she was sentenced to life without parole, Mellen told the court: “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. I’m totally innocent. … With God’s hands upon me now, I’m innocent.”
Innocence Matters, a nonprofit legal organization, eventually won Mellen’s release.
The group interviewed Laura Patti, as well as two men who confessed to the killing and said Mellen had nothing to do with it. A judge declared that Mellen was factually innocent.
Winn also was the lead detective in the prosecution of Obie Anthony, who was declared innocent after spending 17 years behind bars for a killing outside a brothel in South Los Angeles. The city of Los Angeles paid Anthony $8.3 million in compensation.
In June 2015, the state of California awarded Mellen $597,200 in compensation.
“Mellen should have the opportunity to prove, after nearly two decades, whether wrongful conduct played a role in her conviction, and whether she deserves compensation for her wrongful imprisonment,” Wardlaw wrote.