Judge Frees Woman Sent To Prison By Sloppy Detective Work, Clueless Prosecutor, And Lying Informer

A California judge has freed a woman imprisoned 17 years for her ex-boyfriend’s 1997 murder.  Deidre O’Connor, an attorney who advocates for wrongly convicted people, says Susan Mellen, 59, was convicted “solely on the testimony of a notorious liar.”  We should find that troubling.

The victim, Richard Daly, fell asleep in a house Mellen shared with several people.  He was found there by gang members who suspected him of stealing drugs.  They bludgeoned him to death with a hammer, then dumped his body in an alley several miles away and set it on fire.  A gang member was convicted in the case.  So was Ms. Mellen.  Prosecutors convinced a jury she instigated the murder and participated in it by taping Daly’s mouth shut and kicking him, even though she had an alibi.  Her then-boyfriend’s father said she was with him, because he was helping her move.    The prosecutors and jury didn’t believe him.  (Another member later supported Mellen’s alibi by stating in a lie detector test that she wasn’t present when Daly was killed.)   Instead, they believed a drug addict named June Patti with “a long history of giving false tips to law enforcement” who testified that Mellen had confessed to her.  Patti’s testimony was the state’s only evidence against Mellen, but it was enough.  The jury found her guilty, and the court sentenced her to life without parole.

Mellen was no angel.  She used meth and hung out with bad people.  But the new judge believes she’s innocent of Daly’s murder, and says “the justice system failed” in this case.  The integrity of our criminal justice system is important to all of us, so let’s examine this.

Patti, who died in 2006, told people she was a paralegal.  The story she gave police was:  She called Mellen to buy meth from her, and Mellen told her about murdering Daly and asked for legal advice.  Whether Patti actually was a paralegal or not is beside the point; the point is, that’s a plausible-sounding explanation of why Mellen would confide in her about committing a crime and ask her for legal advice.  A detective, prosecutor, judge, and jury might swallow that story whole.

But no one in their right mind who knew of Patti would have believed her.  She lived in Burlington, Washington, in the 1990s and was well known to Skagit County public defenders.  They considered her an attention seeker and kept a file to debunk her credibility because she frequently gave bogus “tips” to police.  During a decade there, she was involved in “more than 2,000 police calls or cases,” some of which involved accusations against her of “theft, trespassing, fraud and harassment,” according to the Los Angeles Times.  Her sister, a Torrance cop, “described her as a pathological liar,” the Times reported.  And several years before the Daly murder, a Torrance detective wrote in a report that Patti had memory problems, was untruthful, prone to exaggerate, and had a tendency to tell him what she thought he wanted to hear.

So why did anyone believe her?  O’Conner points out the detective who investigated the Daly murder was also responsible for two convictions a couple years earlier which were later overturned by the work of innocence projects, in a case that involved false testimony by an informant who got leniency in exchange for his “cooperation.”

I’ve been a lawyer for 40 years, although I didn’t work in criminal law and don’t claim to have expertise in criminal justice.  The following comments are only my opinion, but they come from a lawyer’s perspective.

Despite the well-known shortcomings of witnesses, the legal system relies heavily on witness evidence, for lack of anything to replace it.  But lawyers, being familiar with the fallibility of witnesses, routinely look for physical or other corroborating evidence.  And it’s well understood in the legal profession that evaluating witnesses demands judgment and skill.  They teach this stuff in law school.

It’s also obvious to everyone working in the criminal justice system that crimes committed inside the drug culture are harder to investigate and prosecute, due to the poor reliability of witnesses from that sector of society.  Nevertheless, I’m not saying police and prosecutors should never use questionable witnesses to make cases.  If they didn’t, many crimes couldn’t be prosecuted.  And “questionable” is always a matter of degree, because even reputable witnesses can make honest mistakes.

A subset of the witness reliability problem is the widespread police practice of relying on informants and exchanging leniency for information.  Again, I’m not arguing against it across the board.  But such cases require even greater care in evaluating witnesses.  And there’s another witness issue here — false confessions.  Every police investigator and prosecutor knows that people sometimes confess to crimes they didn’t commit.  So even if a suspect confesses, they still have to verify the confession with corroborating evidence; and that’s even more true of hearsay confessions, i.e. someone says someone else admitted a crime.

Richard Daly’s murder was a brutal crime, and police likely were under pressure from his family, and perhaps the media, to solve it.  Prosecutors are always under pressure to get convictions, because a low conviction rate implies professional incompetence.  This can lead to less-conscientious cops and prosecutors gaming cases in order to win convictions.  Unfortunately, this happens.  Also, prosecutors and police share a common goal — catching and convicting perpetrators of crimes — and develop working relationships, which creates a system bias that causes prosecutors to trust police investigators and disbelieve accuseds, which is reinforced by a natural skepticism of a suspect’s denials, which are seen as self-serving.  Still, both police and prosecutors are ethically obligated to exercise objective judgment about the sufficiency and quality of evidence before bringing charges against someone.

Let’s start with basics.  The first question to ask in a criminal investigation is whether a crime occurred.  When a burning body with a bashed-in head is found in an alley, investigators can safely rule out natural death, accident, and suicide.  Clearly, that’s a homicide.  And when there’s a murder victim, there’s also a murderer.  The subsequent police work is simply a matter of identifying and finding the perp(s), and collecting evidence for use in court.

Investigation procedures for solving murders aren’t mysterious.  Investigators identify the victim; ascertain the time, place, and manner of death; determine where the victim lived and worked, who knew him, etc.; then develop a suspect list consisting of people who came in proximity to the victim and had a reason to do him in.  Some people are killed by strangers, but most victims know their killers.  So, investigators rule robbery or random attack in or out, and interview people who knew the victim — relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, employers, and co-workers — to find out if he was a drug user, had debts, enemies, etc.  With this information, the list of potential suspects can be narrowed down from 7 billion people to a few or just one.  Meanwhile, physical evidence is collected, processed, and analyzed to determine whether it points to someone.

It’s a methodical process based on logic, but it can go awry in multiple ways.  Mellen was a suspect pool because she had broken up with Daly and he was killed in her home.  She wasn’t just a fish in the sea who came up when the net was hauled in, what fishermen call “bycatch.”  But this case had a tricky element.  Merely swimming with the halibut doesn’t make you a halibut.  The law spells out what makes you a participant in a crime; and that’s what police and prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.  The task facing the detective was to rule Mellen in or out as a participant.  He blew it.

The only evidence against her was an informant’s say-so.  This ipso facto waves a yellow caution flag.  Okay, you can argue the detective wouldn’t have done his job if he didn’t check out the informant’s allegations, and I won’t disagree.  But the first thing the detective should have done was check out the informant.  Patti’s track record waves a giant red flag.  If her say-so was the only evidence against Mellen, and it apparently was, the criminal justice system shouldn’t have run with the case.  But it did, and that’s where the system failed.  Someone should have said at that point, “This isn’t enough to prosecute her.”

Police and prosecutors have an affirmative ethical duty to prevent wrongful prosecutions.  That duty wasn’t fulfilled here.  Somehow it broke down.  And the jury shouldn’t have convicted her on such flimsy testimony only.  But that broke down, too.  This detective had a pattern of being sloppy at evaluating the credibility of informants, making the fault for this wrongful conviction primarily his, but it took multiple failures by other actors to produce Mellen’s conviction.   The trial judge, prosecutor, and jury all failed at their duties.  They’re the criminal justice system’s safety mechanism, and they’re supposed to catch stuff like this before it goes too far.  Vacating a conviction years later means the system failed miserably.

Unfortunately, this case isn’t unique, or even rare.  The criminal justice system is churning out wrongful convictions with enough regularity to support a thriving innocence advocacy industry.  As concerned citizens, we need to have a discussion about fixing the system.  While we can’t as individuals directly affect the actions of police, prosecutors, judges, or juries, over the long haul public pressure can be effective to bring about changes to policies and practices that need improvement.  Issues highlighted by this case include:  (1) how police are trained in investigative techniques, (2) the standards used by prosecutors for deciding whether to file charges, (3) use of informants, and (4) giving public defenders more resources so they can do a better job of protecting indigent defendants overzealous or incompetent police and/or prosecutor conduct conducive to producing wrongful convictions.

Sources:Roger Rabbit icon

Update:  The Economist recently did a story on this issue, focusing on the tremendous power of prosecutors, and the overuse of excessive charging and coercive plea bargains that incentivize informers to testify falsely, which you can read in their October 4, 2014, issue at p. 33, or online at the link below.  Here are a couple of excerpts:

“A study by Northwestern University Law School’s Centre on Wrongful Convictions found that 46% of documented wrongful capital convictions between 1973 and 2004 could be traced to false testimony by snitches—making them the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death-penalty cases.”

“Disquiet over prosecutorial power is growing. Several states now require third-party corroboration of a cooperator’s version of events or have barred testimony by cooperators with drug or mental-health problems.”

From this, it is clear that watchdogs are aware of the problem, and reformers are talking about it, but a solution remains a long off as the continuing parade of wrongful convictions sadly attests.

Your Comment