Torrance: A woman who spent 17 years in prison for the death of a homeless man hugged her grandchild for the first time and did a dance of happiness after she was judged innocent of murder and freed.
"I always knew that one day God would bring the truth to the light," Susan Marie Mellen, 59, told reporters yesterday, after she was released from a Torrance courthouse shortly before 6 PM.
About eight hours earlier, a Los Angeles County judge overturned her conviction, saying that her attorney failed to properly represent her and that a woman who claimed she heard Mellen confess was a "habitual liar."
"I believe she is innocent," Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold said. "For that reason I believe in this case the justice system failed."
The courtroom burst into applause after his ruling.
Based solely on witness testimony, Mellen was convicted of orchestrating the beating death of Richard Daly at a Lawndale home where Mellen and others lived.
The mother of three was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
She was embraced by her three grown children after her release.
Mellen shrieked and clapped her hands as she kissed and hugged her 19-month-old grandson, Aiden.
"First time I held him," she told reporters.
"I'm a free woman now. Let me do the running man," she said, and did a few jogging dance steps before the microphones.
She joked and beamed but also described her imprisonment as "cruel punishment."
"I would cry every night" in prison, Mellen said, but never lost faith and even wrote "freedom" on the bottom of her tennis shoes "because I knew I was going to walk free one day."
Mellen's case was investigated by Deirdre O'Connor, head of a project known as Innocence Matters that seeks to free people who are wrongly convicted.
The witness who claimed she heard Mellen confess was June Patti, who had a long history of giving false tips to law enforcement, according to documents in the case. She died in 2006.
Three gang members subsequently were linked to the crime, and one was convicted of the killing. Another took a polygraph test and said he was present at Daly's killing, and Mellen was not there.