A woman wrongly convicted of murder in the 1997 beating death of a homeless man in Lawndale is now free after spending 17 years behind bars.
A judge on Friday overturned the conviction of Susan Mellen, 59, who was accused of orchestrating the killing of former boyfriend Richard Daly over items he allegedly stole from her mother’s house.
She walked out of the courthouse about 5:50 p.m. and was embraced by her emotional family.
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"This is the greatest miracle ever," Mellen said. "I'm just so excited, I don't know what to say. I'm overwhelmed. It's just so amazing, this is huge."
"I told the judge the day I got sentenced that one day God would bring the truth to the light," she said.
Judge Mark Arnold on Friday ordered Mellen released as soon as possible, and dismissed the case against her. He noted the Los Angeles County District Attorney concurred on many points of the case, which hinged on the testimony of a woman he called a "habitual liar."
Mellen insisted on her innocence from the moment of her arrest, and openly wept when the judge spoke.
Mellen's three children were emotional outside court, and said they could not wait for her to release. Mellen's time behind bars was spent most recently at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.
They have been part of the process to free their mother, and said they were overjoyed that she may be free as early as the end of Friday.
Mellen’s daughter, Jessica Besch, called Friday the “happiest day of my life.”
She said the idea that her mother might be set free “felt like a dream.”
“It still doesn't feel real yet until I see her walk through that door,” she said.
In 1997, soon after Daly was found dead, an acquaintance named June Patti told police Mellen had confessed to being part of the beating, and had sought Patti’s advice as a paralegal, court records show.
Mellen was arrested August 1997 in the parking lot of a McDonald’s while her 9-year-old daughter looked on. In videotaped police interviews, Mellen insisted over and over again that she had nothing to do with Daly’s killing, and at trial witnesses testified supporting her alibi for the time of the killing.
While she acknowledged having a drug problem at the time of her arrest, she said she was not present when Daly was killed.
LAPD investigators largely relied on the testimony of a woman named June Patti, who it became clear was known for calling in crimes that never happened or implicating people who had no relation to a crime, according to court documents.
The filings cite Patti’s incidents with the Torrance Police Department, Gardena Police Department, Redondo Beach Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; they also cite her lengthy arrest record.
Mellen was convicted in 1998.
By 2009, representatives from the California Innocence Project began to do interviews with people who had some involvement with the group of people who knew the victim and Mellen, and who could have known something about the killing.
In 2013, Torrance nonprofit Innocence Matters began reinvestigating the case, and worked with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to reexamine evidence from the Daly murder.
According to court filings petitioning for Mellen’s release, evidence consistently pointed to three known gang members who frequented one of two houses on the property where Daly was killed. Both houses belonged to Mellen’s mother.
One of those suspected to be involved told investigators Mellen had nothing to do with the slaying, according to court documents. Innocence Matters has also called into question the motives and ability of the LAPD homicide detective who oversaw the investigation.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Mellen was behind bars for 16 years, but the correct amount is 17 years. She was arrested in August 1997.