Innocent woman freed after 17 years in prison

  A Los Angeles County judge, calling the case a failure of the criminal-justice system, threw out the murder conviction of 59-year-old Susan Mellen, convicted on testimony of a witness later known for giving false tips to law enforcement in Washington state.

The Associated Press
October 10, 2014

  TORRANCE, Calif. — A woman who spent 17 years in prison after being convicted of murder in the death of a homeless man was exonerated Friday by a Los Angeles County judge who said she should not spend another minute behind bars.

  The courtroom audience applauded after Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold overturned the conviction of Susan Mellen.

  Mellen, 59, had entered the courtroom in tears, and her children also cried. The judge said Mellen had inadequate representation by her attorney at trial.

  “I believe that not only is Ms. Mellen not guilty, based on what I have read I believe she is innocent,” he said. “For that reason I believe in this case the justice system failed.”

  “Thank you, your honor; thank you so much,” Mellen said.

  “Good luck,” the judge told her.

  She was released Friday evening from a Torrance courthouse. She said she did not feel anger despite her ordeal. “I don’t understand how they kept me — how they put me away,” she said. “It’s crazy. It was cruel punishment.”

  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.

  O’Connor said earlier that she found that Mellen was convicted in 1998 of the 1997 killing based solely on the testimony of a notorious liar.

  Mellen, a mother of three, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

  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.

  Patti later moved to northwest Washington state, where she was involved in more than 2,000 police calls or cases in the county before her 2006 death. Patti as a credible witness was a “laughable” idea, the director of the Skagit County public defender’s office recently told the Los Angeles Times.

  Three gang members subsequently were linked to the 1997 killing, and one was convicted of the crime. Another took a polygraph test and said he was present at the bludgeon killing of Richard Daly and that Mellen was not there.

  In a habeas corpus petition, O’Connor said the police detective who arrested Mellen was also responsible for a case in 1994 that resulted in the convictions of two men ultimately exonerated by innocence projects.

  Mellen’s three children, now 39, 27 and 25, were raised by their grandmother and other relatives. They said they never told friends where their mother was or that she had been convicted of a crime she did not commit.

  Asked if Mellen planned to sue anyone, her attorney said she had some legal recourse, but they hadn’t decided whether they would take action. First, they planned to file to have her declared factually innocent.

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Snitch's lies revealed; drug probe crumbles

Wes Ballard is trying to put his life back together after serving 10 months in jail because of lies told by an informant who was handled...

The Associated Press
February 11, 2008

  Wes Ballard, sitting outside his mother's home in Mansfield, Ohio, said allegations that sent him to jail came out of nowhere.

  CLEVELAND — Wes Ballard is trying to put his life back together after serving 10 months in jail because of lies told by an informant who was handled by a federal agent now facing multiple investigations himself.

  Ballard and 25 other people were arrested in a sting meant to clean up the drug trade in Mansfield, Ohio, about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus. Many of those arrested were convicted.

  Now, though, prosecutors are asking a federal judge to dismiss charges including conspiracy and cocaine trafficking against most of the defendants, even some who pleaded guilty.

  "I don't trust these people here," Ballard, 33, said of the authorities.

  The sting was based on tips from Jerrell Bray, a small-time operator who was supervised by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Lee Lucas.

  The 34-year-old Bray, enlisted as an informant in 2005, has admitted concocting a fabric of lies to polish his informant credentials and keep suspects flowing through the court system. He's serving 15 years for perjury and civil-rights violations against the individuals targeted in his role as an informant.

  Ballard, an unemployed father of six children, said Bray's allegations against him came out of the blue. He said he once saw Bray at a church-sponsored auto show but never met him.

  After spending nearly a year in jail awaiting trial, Ballard was acquitted last year by a jury skeptical of Bray's testimony. For one thing, Bray's description of Ballard's height was off by 8 inches.

  Others didn't fare as well: Geneva France was convicted of being a drug courier and spent 16 months in prison before her case was dismissed last May. By the time the 25-year-old was freed, her 3-year-old daughter no longer recognized her, she'd been evicted from her home, and all her belongings had been thrown out.

  The botched cases highlight the risks of working with informants, said Lewis Katz, a law professor at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. He compared them to unreliable jail snitches who hope to win shorter sentences.

  While police sometimes must rely on informants, "It is very disturbing that they simply accepted this person's claim against so many defendants," Katz said.

  U.S. Attorney Greg White, whose staff of 75 federal prosecutors in northern Ohio prosecuted the tainted drug cases, said he was satisfied that his staff had acted in good faith.

  Once wrongdoing was disclosed, prosecutors asked the judge last month to undo the charges. "Our feeling was, as a matter of fundamental fairness, we needed to do this and we did," White said.

  Bray's drug-agent handler, Lucas, is being investigated by the Justice Department and the DEA, and a grand jury being directed by a prosecutor brought in from Pennsylvania also is reviewing his cases.

  Ballard and others have filed a civil lawsuit against Lucas, a 17-year veteran who has worked in Bolivia battling drug traffickers.

  Lucas' attorney, Joel Kirkpatrick, of Farmington Hills, Mich., said Lucas would defend himself in court on the civil matter, but he would not comment on the reviews under way into the drug investigation.

  The DEA won't comment on Bray or Lucas.

  Drug cases pose a special problem for investigators, since drug dealers wary of undercover investigators typically won't have anything to do with anyone they don't know.

  That often leads to the government's reliance on informants who often agree to snitch on people in return for lenient treatment in their own legal problems.

  Michael Sanders, a DEA spokesman in Washington, said the case in Mansfield may lead the DEA to review its policies on handling informants.

  White, the federal prosecutor, cautioned against concluding that "everyone was wrongfully charged," but he would not detail how many of the 13 who pleaded guilty were innocent.

  "This is not the finest hour of the justice system for sure. However, I think we've done our best to make that right," White said.