California woman freed after 17 years, declared innocent of murder

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 10, 2014 7:28 PM

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A 59-year-old California woman who spent 17 years in prison for murder was ordered freed on Friday by a judge who said she was wrongly convicted on the basis of testimony by a woman known to be a habitual liar, the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday.

The case against Susan Mellen, who was found guilty in 1998 of killing her ex-boyfriend the year before, was thrown out at the request of Los Angeles County prosecutors after an investigation by local attorney Deirdre O'Connor turned up major credibility issues with the trial's star prosecution witness.

"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 has failed," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold said in setting aside the conviction, according to the Times.

The paper reported that the decision was greeted in the courtroom by cheers from some three dozen supporters of Mellen.

O'Connor, who runs a local innocence project based in Torrance, California, could not immediately be reached for comment by Reuters following the hearing.

In a letter to the court asking that the case be thrown out, Los Angeles prosecutors said that the case was largely based on testimony of a woman named June Patti, who told police at the time that Mellen had made incriminating statements to her about the murder.

A special unit of the district attorney's office which investigates habeas corpus cases has since determined that Patti's testimony is "doubtful," prosecutors said in the letter.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case, other than providing the letter.

The Times reported that five years before the trial, Patti had been labeled an "unreliable informant" by the Torrance, California, police department after giving them a series of false tips.

Patti, who died in 2006, also was involved in some 2,000 calls or cases in Washington state, where the director of the Skagit County Public Defender's office told the paper that the idea that she was a credible witness was "laughable."

In throwing out Mellen's conviction, Arnold said her attorney at the 1998 trial had failed to properly investigate Patti's credibility, the Times reported.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)