There are several indisputable core facts about the case of Susan Mellen.
First, the burned body of Rick Daly was found near a dumpster in San Pedro, California on July 21, 1997. Anonymous tips to the Los Angeles Police Department said Daly had been murdered in Torrance, California by members of a local gang known as the Lawndale 13. They then transported his body to San Pedro where it was dumped and set ablaze.
Second, the case was assigned to LAPD Detective Marcella Winn for investigation.
Third, three weeks after Daly’s body was discovered Detective Winn was contacted by a career police informant named June Patti. She implicated Susan Mellen in Daly’s murder.
Four, Patti had more than 800 contacts with law enforcement during a fourteen year period between 1988 and 2002. She was known to lie about and to exaggerate information she provided to the police.
Five, the Torrance Police Department declared Patti an “unreliable informant” in 1993.
Six, June Patti’s sister, Laura, was a member of the Torrance Police Department in 1997.
Seven, Susan Mellen was arrested on August 25, 1997 in connection with the first-degree murder of Rick Daly.
Investigator Knew Informant was Liar
Eight, Laura Patti spoke with Detective Winn after Mellen’s arrest. The police officer informed Detective Winn that her sister, June, was “the biggest liar” she had “ever met” and that she would not “believe anything [June] says.” Laura added that June “had a habit of not telling the truth” since the age of four or five. She informed the detective that June had filed more than twenty unsubstantiated complaints against her with the Torrance Police Department and that she constantly told lies about Laura to Laura’s colleagues.
Nine, June Patti testified at Mellen’s preliminary hearing conducted on November 13, 1997, telling the court that Mellen had personally confessed her role in Daly’s death to June Patti. The State was represented at that hearing by Assistant District Attorney Valerie Rose. Based on Patti’s testimony, the court ruled there was probable cause for the case against Mellen to go to trial.
Ten, in February 1998, June Patti wrote a letter to ADA Rose informing her that she could not return from Washington State to testify against Mellen because her sister, Laura, had threatened to have her arrested for outstanding traffic tickets. She asked ADA Rose to assist in getting the tickets dismissed. ADA Rose placed Patti’s letter in the pretrial discovery disclosure book. The problem was that the disclosure book had been turned over to defense counsel four months earlier.
Eleven, ADA Rose responded to Patti’s letter in April 1998, just three weeks prior to Mellen’s impending murder trial, advising the informant that “[n]either your sister or any other police officer can serve you or arrest for anything that happened in this state prior to the date you came into … the state in order to comply with your subpoena.”
Twelve, at the time of Mellen’s trial, May 1998, ADA Rose knew that June Patti was currently working as a paid informant for two police departments and that she had been certified as an “unreliable informant” by the Torrance Police Department. This was not disclosed to Mellen’s defense attorney. ADA Rose got all information about Patti’s role as a paid informant excluded from the trial.
Thirteen, Mellen was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in June 1998. June Patti had been the State’s chief witness.
Favorable Evidence Must Be Disclosed
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brady v. Maryland that imposed a duty on prosecutors and law enforcement officials to disclose to the defendant, upon request, any material favorable evidence that would be exculpatory to guilt or punishment. Nine years later the Supreme Court in Giglio v. United States applied the Brady Rule to impeachment evidence.
That was clearly established law in 1997-98 when Detective Winn conducted her investigation into Mellen’s alleged role in the Daly murder. The detective knew about the constitutional requirements of the Brady Rule. Yet this representative of the State failed to disclose to Mellen’s attorney the conversation she with Laura Patti or the information about June Patti’s long history of being a certified, unreliable informant.
Nearly two decades after her conviction, Mellen’s case came to the attention of a non-profit group called Innocence Matters which wages habeas corpus efforts on behalf of wrongfully convicted inmates. They uncovered information about Detective Winn’s non-disclosures. That led to a state district court in October 2014—some seventeen years after Mellen’s conviction—to find constitutional violations of Brady/Giglio and reversed Mellen’s conviction, finding her “factually innocent” of the murder charge.
In 2016, Mellen and her three daughters filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Detective Winn for her violations of the Brady Rule. A U.S. District Court in the Central District of California dismissed the lawsuit, granting the detective immunity.
On August 17, 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court ruling and remanded the case for a trial on the merits. The appeals court’s conclusion was particularly damning:
“Susan Mellen was convicted for murder based solely on the testimony of June Patti. Mellen’s evidence at summary judgment raises a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Detective Winn knew that June Patti was a liar, and failed to disclose material, exculpatory, evidence of that fact. Summary judgement should not have been granted on this record. 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.”
We laud the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Detective Winn engaged in deliberate wrongful conduct, and by omission, we believe ADA Rose had an ancillary role in that conduct.