Judge Releases Woman He Believes Is Innocent 17 Years After Her Murder Conviction

An L.A. County Judge has exonerated a woman who spent the last 17 years in prison for a murder he doesn't think she committed.

Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said that not only does he believe Susan Mellen, now 59, is innocent, he believes that "the criminal justice system failed," L.A. Times reports.

Back in 1998, Mellen was on trial for the murder of her ex-boyfriend, Richard James Daly, 30, who was a transient and father of two children. His charred body was found in a trash fire in an alley in San Pedro. Investigators determined that he was killed in another location, where his attacker had forced a scarf down this throat and hit him head with a hammer, according to the L.A. Times. Authorities determined the scarf and beating killed him, and he was dead before the fire.

Investigators found that Daly was killed in Lawndale on property that the local denizens called 'The Mellen Patch.' There was a vacant house on the property known for gang and drug activity, but this was also Mellen's childhood home where she still kept some of her things. Mellen, in her 40s at the time, had three children and worked as a house cleaner, but also used meth and sold drugs to make extra money.

By talking to informants, investigators narrowed their suspect list down to three members of a local gang, the Lawndale 13s. However, a known drug user named June Patti offered a tip to police that incriminated Mellen. She said that she called up Mellen to buy drugs, and Mellen told her about how she had recruited one of the Lawndale 13s to murder Daly.

According to Patti, Mellen recounted how she and her current boyfriend found Daly sleeping in the Mellen Patch house. Daly had been stealing drugs and other items from them, so with the help of the gang member, Mellen and her boyfriend gagged Daly and beat him to death, then dumped his body by some trash, Patti said.

Because Patti's stories bore similarities to what had actually happened, investigators took her at her word. They arrested Mellen and the trial began.

The thing about Patti, however, is that she was already well-known by local law enforcement before she became the key witness in the Mellen trial. She constantly offered tips to authorities claiming to be a paralegal, but no one ever took her very seriously as her tips usually amounted to nothing. In one year alone, Patti called police 800 times.

Patti's story regarding what Mellen told her changed during the trial. Her new story claimed that Mellen's current boyfriend caught her cheating with Daly at the house, then attacked him and Mellen helped kill him. Mellen testified that she was moving into a new apartment at the time of the murder, and her boyfriend's father corroborated her story. However, between Mellen's bumbling attorney and no mention of Patti's past, jurors found her guilty in less than five hours. She was sentenced to life in prison.

There was not enough evidence to build a case, however, against Mellen's boyfriend, Daily Breeze reports. Chad Landrum, the gang member the pair supposedly had help them murder Daly, was also sentenced to life in prison. Another inmate, Shirley Knocke, who was on the same bus as Landrum and Mellen when they were being taken to court back in 1998 said she heard Landrum tell Mellen she wouldn't be convicted because she "had nothing to do with it." The inmate said she called Mellen's lawyer, but never heard back. Knocke, who later became friends with Mellen in jail, said that Landrum had actually been the one who killed Daly because he thought Daly was stealing from him.

Meanwhile, Patti moved to Washington, fell ill with cancer, then died after her lung collapsed while smocking crack in 2006.

Mellen filed many appeals over the last several years, but it wasn't until a public defender named Deirdre O'Connor took up her case in November that any headway was made. O'Connor, 52, found out about Mellen's case while working on a different one and spent time researching it. She found several reports of Patti's tips, often lies, and a case where a police officer had called her an "unreliable informant." Patti's sister had called her a "pathological liar," and the brother of Patti's boyfriend had accused her of harassing him after she filed several false tips about him to police.

Additionally, O'Connor was able to reach one of the gang members named as an initial suspect, Santo Alvarez. In the court documents O'Connor submitted, she says Alvarez took a polygraph this year and passed in which he said he was present when Daly was killed, but that Mellen was not.