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Susan Mellen

Other California Cases with Female Exonerees
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On July 21, 1997, the body of a man was found burning in an alley in San Pedro, California. Several days later, the man was identified as 30-year-old Richard Daly.

Over the next three weeks, Los Angeles Police Detective Marcella Winn began receiving tips from confidential informants that Daly was killed by members of the Lawndale 13 street gang.

The informants said three gang members named Lester Monllor, Chad Landrum and Santo Alvarez beat Daly to death with a claw hammer in a house at 16416 Firmona Avenue in Lawndale, California.

There were two residences on the lot, which was known in the neighborhood as the “Mellen Patch” because both houses were owned by Allene Mellen. Informants told Detective Winn that Daly had been killed in the house in the rear of the lot. At the time of the murder, the rear house was vacant, but until about five months earlier, Allene had been living there with her daughter, Susan Mellen, and Susan’s son Donnie, and daughter Jessica.

Robert Mellen, Jr., Allene’s son, lived in the house in the front of the lot along with his wife, and their two children. Monllor, who was known as “Wicked,” also lived in the front house with his mother and sister. From time to time, various drug users and gang members stayed in the front house as well.

On August 13, Detective Winn executed an arrest warrant for both houses in the Mellen Patch looking for Santa Alvarez, Lester Monllor and Chad Landrum. The rear house, which was vacant, was partially damaged by fire on August 1. Later on August 13, Monllor was arrested elsewhere and charged with Daly’s murder. Landrum was arrested and charged with murder on August 25.

Alvarez, however, was not arrested. Detective Winn had learned that on August 5, Alvarez was arrested on unrelated charges and that he was assisting the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in a different murder investigation. As a result, Winn did not pursue Alvarez for the murder of Daly.

Also on August 13, a woman named June Patti, who falsely claimed she was a paralegal at the Los Angeles County Superior Court in Torrance, California, called the police station. Patti said she had information about the Daly murder. Patti called again on August 14 and left another message saying that she spoke to Susan Mellen on the night of the 13th—many hours after Patti’s first call to police. In this second call, Patti said that Mellen admitted that she took part in the murder.

Winn met with Patti on August 15 and Patti told the detective that Mellen and her boyfriend, “Tom,” found Daly, who was homeless, sleeping in the house and they believed Daly was stealing from them. According to Patti, Tom summoned Landrum from the front house and they kicked Daly to death, with Susan Mellen kicking Daly once. Patti said Susan had taped Daly’s mouth shut to muffle his screams.

Not long after that interview, Winn spoke with June Patti’s sister, Laura Patti, who was a police officer in Torrance. Laura said that June was a “pathological liar” and a “master manipulator.” In fact, just days earlier, June Patti had pled guilty to making a criminal threat for threatening to kill Laura Patti and Laura’s son, and was placed on probation. Winn did not make a record of her conversation with Laura Patti, and the information was not disclosed to the defense.

On August 25, 1997, Susan Mellen was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Mellen told Winn she was not involved in the murder and that on the day of the crime she was moving from Redondo Beach, California to Gardena, California.

By the time Mellen went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in May 1998, Landrum had been convicted of first-degree murder in a separate trial and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The prosecution’s case against Mellen relied entirely on the testimony of June Patti, although her account of what Mellen had told her changed dramatically. Patti told the jury that Mellen’s boyfriend, “Tom,” walked into the house and Susan was engaged in a sexual act with Daly. Instead of kicking Daly once, Patti now testified that Mellen kicked him multiple times, stuffed a bandana down Daly’s throat and used Super Glue to seal his mouth shut—even though crime scene photos showed that Daly’s mouth was open and a woolen scarf, not a bandana, was hanging from it.

Patti said that “Tom” had walked next door to the front house on the lot where he gave Landrum a quarter ounce of methamphetamine in exchange for helping to kill Daly. Patti testified that Landrum beat Daly with a hammer and that Landrum, Mellen and “Tom” repeatedly kicked him, then Landrum burned Daly’s face and head while he was still alive. Patti told the jury that after Daly died, his body was wrapped in a blanket and taken to an alley in San Pedro, California, where it was set on fire.

Mellen’s attorney failed to challenge Patti’s testimony with autopsy findings: that there was no evidence of Super Glue in or around Daly’s mouth; that there were no burns on Daly’s face and head; and that the burns on the rest of his body came after his death.

Mellen testified in her own defense and denied involvement in the crime. Three other witnesses testified. One said he was with Mellen as she moved to Garden on the day of the murder. Another testified that Mellen did not meet Patti or sell drugs to her on the night of August 14; and a third witness testified that Mellen was not at the Mellen Patch at the time of the murder.

On May 15, 1998, a jury convicted Mellen of first-degree murder and she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Monllor went on trial later and was acquitted.

In 2009, Shirley Knocke, a resident of the Lawndale area befriended Santo Alvarez—the third suspect named in Winn’s original warrant, who was never arrested in the Daly murder. Alvarez confided to Knocke that he had helped Landrum and Monllor kill Daly and that Mellen was not involved.

In November 2013, Knocke learned that Innocence Matters, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that investigates wrongful convictions, was reviewing Mellen’s case. She contacted Innocence Matters to report what Alvarez had told her four years earlier. Knocke took a polygraph examination and the examiner said she was being truthful. By that time, Susan Mellen had voluntarily taken and passed a polygraph examination at the request of Deirdre O’Connor, executive director of Innocence Matters.

Between January 27, and February 4, 2014, Alvarez contacted Mellen’s nephew through private messages on Facebook and said he wanted to talk about Mellen’s innocence. Mellen’s nephew contacted Mellen’s daughter, Jessica, and a day later, Alvarez met with Jessica. He said, “Yes, she’s innocent; she took my place.” Alvarez admitted that he and Landrum and Monllor killed Daly and that he regretted that Mellen was serving time in prison for his crime.

Alvarez met on a second occasion with Mellen’s daughter on February 17, 2014. Alvarez recounted that on the day of the crime, Daly was inside the house on the rear of the lot, boarding up some windows. Alvarez said he and Landrum and Monllor gained entry to the house through a screen door and that once inside, Landrum hit Daly three times in the head with a hammer. Alvarez said he didn’t take part in the murder or the transportation and burning of the body. He said there were more details, but he wanted to get a lawyer and get immunity before telling the full story.

On February 19, 2014, O’Connor informed the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office that she planned to meet with Alvarez and suggested that a law enforcement officer be present undercover. When Alvarez met with O’Connor and an investigator and a student intern on February 23, however, no law enforcement officer was present.

During that meeting, Alvarez again said Mellen was innocent. On March 21, Alvarez gave a different version, saying that he and Landrum and Monllor were in the vacant house at the rear of the Mellen Patch getting high when Daly showed up with a bottle of alcohol. They were drinking together amicably when suddenly Landrum began beating Daly in the head with a hammer. Landrum then stuffed the scarf in Daly’s mouth. Alvarez said that he and Monllor wrapped the body in blankets and a shower curtain. Landrum and Monllor carried the body to another man’s car and they drove off without Alvarez.

During O’Connor’s re-investigation of the case, Landrum was interviewed and said that Mellen was not involved in the crime. Other witnesses were located who confirmed that Landrum told several people that Mellen was not involved.

O’Connor also discovered that June Patti—the prosecution’s sole witness against Mellen—had attempted on numerous occasions to inform several different Los Angeles County police departments about wrongdoing by others, but had been discredited in every instance. The prosecution did not disclose to Mellen’s defense lawyer any of the information about her past contact with police officers. Detective Winn did not disclose her interview with Patti’s sister, Laura, during which Laura said Patti was a “pathological liar” and “master manipulator.”

In September 2014, O’Connor filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking to vacate Mellen’s conviction. On October 10, 2014, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office informed the court that it had no intention of continuing to prosecute the case because there was no evidence of Mellen’s guilt. The court vacated the conviction, the charge was dismissed and Mellen was released.

In November 2014, Judge Mark Arnold declared Mellen factually innocent. Mellen filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the detectives in April 2015. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2017, and Mellen appealed to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. In June 2015, the state of California awarded her $597,200 in compensation.

Detective Winn was also the lead detective in the wrongful convictions of Obie Anthony and Reggie Cole, who were convicted of a 1994 murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Cole’s conviction was set aside and the charges against him were dismissed in 2009; Anthony’s conviction was set aside and the charges dismissed in 2011. They were freed after the California Innocence Project in San Diego and the Northern California Innocence Project in Santa Clara discovered that the prosecution had withheld evidence showing that the prosecution’s primary witness had testified falsely.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/10/2014
Last Updated: 8/3/2017
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2014
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:42
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No