A Gardena woman who endured a 17-year imprisonment for a murder she did not commit is suing the city of Los Angeles, saying the L.A. Police detective in charge of her case knowingly used false testimony from a known pathological liar and failed to disclose that information during her trial.
Susan Mellen filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Wednesday. She was sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 murder of Richard James Daly, a homeless man whose bound and beaten body was found burning in a San Pedro alley.
Mellen's suit claims LAPD detective Marcella Winn used false testimony from June Patti, an informant with ties to gang members. Patti's own sister, a Torrance police officer, told detective Winn she was a pathological liar, the suit alleges.
Despite this knowledge, Winn used Patti's testimony to conspire against Mellen, the lawsuit claims.
Patti testified that Mellen had been having sex with the victim when her boyfriend found them. Patti claimed Mellen stuffed a scarf down Daly's throat to appease her boyfriend, according to the suit.
“The architect of this injustice is LAPD detective Winn,” the lawsuit states. “Winn intentionally turned her back on investigating one of the men actually involved in the murder, a gang member with the moniker Payaso, in order to convict Mellen, based solely on the word of a manipulative drug addict, June Patti, a witness Winn knew lacked all credibility.’
Winn had also been involved in the case of Obie Anthony, who recently received an $8 million settlement from the city after he was found to have been wrongfully imprisoned. He was released after 36 years.
"Obviously, holding [Winn] accountable is important," her lawyer Paul L. Hoffman said. "But she's certainly not the only detective that's been involved in a wrongful conviction, and we really want to make sure that the LAPD focuses on what it can do to prevent this from happening again."
Hoffman said the lawsuit hopes partly to compensate Mellen and her family, and partly to push for reform of L.A.'s criminal justice system.
"We want to put a spotlight on the practices and the lack of systems in the Los Angeles Police Department to prevent wrongful convictions like this from happening," Hoffman said.
Mellen was exonerated and released from prison last October after a yearlong investigation by the organization Innocence Matters.
She has already been granted $600,000 from a state program that reimburses those wrongfully imprisoned $100 for each day they spend locked up. The lawsuit filed Wednesday calls for additional compensatory damages to be determined by a jury.
"She still carries many of the burdens of having been wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years," Hoffman said. "On the other hand, she's also now beginning to experience the joys again of being with her family."
Her children — Julie Carroll, Jessica Curcio and Donald Besch, who were 22, 9 and 7 respectively at the time of her arrest — are also plaintiffs in the suit.
"Their claim is that the defendant's actions deprived them of their mother for 17 years," Hoffman said.
A spokesperson for the LAPD said they do not comment on ongoing litigation.
This story has been updated.