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TORRANCE, Calif. – 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 Friday, after she was released from a Torrance courthouse shortly before 6 p.m.
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.
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 said she held no ill will against those who put her behind bars.
"No, no, I always forgave my enemies," she said. "Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes you have to thank them because they bring you closer to God."
Mellen said she planned to go to dinner with her family and wanted to eat an avocado, steak, or maybe something she had never had.
She also hoped to have a McDonald's Happy Meal with her youngest daughter.
"Me and her were at McDonald's when I got arrested and we didn't have a happy meal that day," she said. "... It's a happy ending right now...We're going to have a new beginning."
As Mellen's family waited outside the courthouse before her release, her son, who has little memory of his mother because he was so young when she was imprisoned, opened his shirt to show reporters a broken heart he had tattooed on his chest to honor her. Donald Besch, 25 and in the Navy, said he was hoping to have some time with his mother before he is deployed overseas in a few days.
Daughter Jessica Besch, 27, said she and her fiance of eight years were waiting to get married until her mother could be at the wedding.
"We're going to go dress shopping together," she said.
Her third daughter, Julie Carroll, 39, brought Mellen's grandson.
The children were raised by their grandmother and other relatives while their mother was in prison. They said they never told friends where she was or that she had been convicted of a crime she did not commit.