Wrongful convictions of three innocent men 39 years ago in Ohio set aside

November 21, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Good morning:

Good news today.

Professor Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, writes in today’s Huffington Post,

This morning, Ricky Jackson walked out of the Cuyahoga County courtroom in downtown Cleveland a free man after 39 years in prison–several of those on death row–for a murder he didn’t commit. The last time he tasted freedom was in 1975 when a postage stamp cost 10 cents, Gerald Ford was president, Pete Rose was the World Series MVP, Billie Jean King won Wimbledon, and Saturday Night Live had just premiered.

Jackson and his codefendants, Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, are black. They were convicted of murdering a white businessman named Harry Franks and sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1975. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison after the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared a similar Georgia death penalty statute unconstitutional.

Police misconduct caused their wrongful convictions. They terrified a 12-year-old boy, Ed Vernon, who initially lied to police claiming he witnessed the shooting when, in fact, he was a passenger in a school bus a couple of blocks away and did not see it. When he attempted to recant his statement, they screamed, threw objects at him and threatened to send his parents to prison for attempting to get him to change his story. He capitulated, testified in court and identified them as the killers.

Vernon recanted his story under oath in court last week and two witnesses who had been riding on the bus with Vernon that day testified that no one on the bus could have witnessed the murder because the location where it happened was not visible.

I suspect ineffective assistance of counsel played a role in the wrongful convictions because defense counsel should have assigned an investigator to check-out the scene and interview the school bus driver and all of the students on the bus before trial. If that had been done, defense counsel would have been able to impeach Vernon’s credibility and save their clients from death sentences and 39 years in prison.

For more information, go here.


Susan Mellen is free today after spending 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit

October 11, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Good morning:

Free at last!

After serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, Susan Mellen is free at last.

Corrina Knoll of the Los Angeles Times reports:

Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said the trial had hinged on a single witness who was a “habitual liar” and claimed Mellen had confessed involvement in the crime. But jurors never learned that the witness’ sister, a Torrance police officer, believed she was a pathological liar or that Torrance police had several years earlier deemed the witness an “unreliable informant.”

The judge said Mellen had received “subpar representation” from a trial attorney who should have conducted a thorough investigation of the witness’ credibility.

“I believe that not only is Ms. Mellen not guilty, I believe based on what I’ve read, she’s innocent, and for that reason I believe the criminal justice system failed,” Arnold said.

“Thank you, your honor, thank you so much,” Mellen, 59, said in a small voice.

“Good luck,” the judge replied.

Mellen was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for soliciting the murder of a homeless man, Richard Daly, at a home in Lawndale, California where she and others were living at the time. Three gang members were subsequently linked to the murder and one of them was convicted of beating Daly to death. One of the others later passed a polygraph in which he admitted that he was present during the murder, but Susan Mellen was not there.

The three causes of this wrongful conviction are:

1) Jailhouse informant perjury;

2) Police and prosecutorial misconduct; and

3) Ineffective assistance of counsel.

The jailhouse informant or ‘snitch’ in this case was a woman named June Patti. People who work in the criminal justice system all know that jailhouse snitch testimony is inherently unreliable because they have powerful motives to lie in order to receive beneficial consequences lightening their load in return for their cooperation and testimony against a defendant. For this reason, I believe no conviction based solely on jailhouse snitch testimony should ever stand.

Mellen’s case is a perfect example of what can go wrong, if jailhouse snitch testimony is admitted to shore up a weak prosecution case.

June Patti testified that Susan Mellen admitted her guilt in the Daly murder while they were together in jail before Mellen’s trial. The lead investigator, LAPD Detective Marcella Winn, and the prosecutor who tried Susan Mellen should have known and likely knew that June Patti was an unreliable witness because she had a long history of providing false tips to law enforcement. For example, Patti’s sister, the Torrance police officer to whom Judge Arnold referred in his comment, now claims that she warned Detective Winn that June Patti was a pathological liar and several years before the murder a narcotics detective for the Torrance Police Department wrote a report in which he said Patti had provided a series of tips that turned out to false.

Police and prosecutors have a duty to investigate the reliability of an informant before putting her on the stand and risk convicting a potentially innocent defendant.

This information was exculpatory evidence that should have been obtained and disclosed to defense counsel before trial pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, and Giglio v. United States. Their failure to obtain and disclose this information to defense counsel was misconduct.

Finally, Mellen’s defense attorney compounded their misconduct by failing to investigate June Patti’s credibility. Her failure constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.

I have often referred to defense counsel as liberty’s last guardian and that statement is certainly true in this case because Susan Mellen is free today due to the efforts of Deirdre O’Connor, an attorney who runs Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization that represents wrongfully convicted innocent people.

Upon her release yesterday after serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, she said,

I always forgave my enemies. Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes thank them because they bring you closer to God.

For more information about June Patti’s pathological lying in Washington State after she left California, please go here.


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