Monday, August 20, 2018
Evidence Allegedly Withheld by Detective in Murder Case Was Material
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A conversation allegedly withheld by a Los Angeles Police Department detective whose investigation of a 1997 murder resulted in a woman being wrongfully imprisoned for more than 16 years was material to that woman’s case as a matter of law because it cast doubt on the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness, a panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Friday.
The opinion, by Judge Kim Wardlaw, reverses a summary judgment granted by U.S. District Court Judge George H. Wu of the Central District of California to the now-retired detective, Marcella Winn. Winn was sued by the wrongfully convicted woman, Susan Mellen, and her children for violating Mellen’s civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §1983 by withholding the evidence.
Mellen claims that Winn had a conversation concerning star witness June Patti’s credibility with Patti’s sister, a now-retired Torrance police officer. Winn denies having the conversation, in which Patti’s sister allegedly called the woman an habitual liar.
In addition to determining that the conversation was material to Mellen’s case as a matter of law, Wardlaw’s opinion holds that the plaintiff raised triable issues of material fact as to whether Winn had been deliberately indifferent in withholding the conversation.
Winn was assigned in 1997 to investigate the murder of Rick Daly, an ex-boyfriend of Mellen who was bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer at a Lawndale residential property owned by Mellen’s family, known as “the Mellen Patch.” Daly’s body was found in San Pedro, where it had been transported and burned after the murder.
Following leads received by the LAPD, Winn initially secured issuance of arrest warrants for Lester Monllor, Chad Landrum and Santo Alvarez, three gang members who had allegedly committed the murder. Landrum was convicted of the murder and Monllor was acquitted in a separate trial, but Alvarez was never even questioned during the investigation.
June Patti contacted Winn and told the detective that she had met with Mellen and her boyfriend, Thomas Schenkelberg, at the hotel where Patti lived, and that Mellen had confessed to the murder. Based on her interviews with Patti, Winn presented the case against Mellen to the district attorney, who filed charges against her.
Patti’s testimony was key to the prosecution’s case against Mellen, which resulted in a jury finding the woman guilty. That testimony was rife with inconsistencies, and by the time she testified at trial her story had changed a number of times.
Mellen brought a petition for habeas corpus in 2014 with the help of Torrance attorney Deirdre L. O’Connor, founder of nonprofit organization Innocence Matters, who had heard about the case and began investigating. O’Connor’s sleuthing led her to an interview with Alvarez, who told the attorney that Monllor, Landrum and he had committed the murder, and that Mellen had not been involved.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office concurred in the petition for the a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted that year by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold.
“I believe that not only is Ms. Mellen not guilty, based on what I have read I believe she is innocent. For that reason I believe in this case the justice system failed.”
Mellen brought the current lawsuit against Winn, the City of Los Angeles and Richard Hoffman, Winn’s former supervisor. She voluntarily dismissed Hoffman and the city in 2016.
“Mellen contends that Detective Winn wrongfully withheld a statement that June Patti’s sister, Laura Patti (Laura), made to Detective Winn before trial. Laura, who was a Torrance police officer at the time of the investigation, told Detective Winn that her sister, June Patti, was ‘the biggest liar’ that she had ‘ever met’ in her life and that she did not ‘believe anything [Patti] says.’
“Laura said that she based this conclusion on her personal experiences with her sister, who, since the age of four or five, ‘had a habit of not telling the truth.’ Laura also explained that her sister had filed more than twenty complaints against Laura with the Torrance Police Department, all unsubstantiated, and that Patti ‘constant[ly]’ lied to Laura’s colleagues. At her deposition, Laura also said that she believed that Patti had been a ‘certified informant’ with the Torrance Police Department in the early 1990s.”
Patti’s sister is a witness in Mellen’s current case. Patti died in 2006.
Mellen brought her suit against Winn under two Supreme Court cases, Brady v. Maryland (1963) and Giglio v. United States (1972). Under Brady, prosecutors are required to turn over exculpatory evidence, while in Giglio the high court extended Brady to apply to impeachment evidence.
“The elements of a civil Brady/Giglio claim against a police officer are: (1) the officer suppressed evidence that was favorable to the accused from the prosecutor and the defense, (2) the suppression harmed the accused, and (3) the officer ‘acted with deliberate indifference to or reckless disregard for an accused’s rights or for the truth in withholding evidence from prosecutors.’ ”
Winn denied having the conversation with Patti’s sister, but conceded that if she had then the first element was satisfied. She disputed that the evidence was material to Mellen’s case and that any nondisclosure on her part was deliberately indifferent.
Statements Were Material
The jurist declared:
“We conclude that Laura’s statement was material Brady evidence as a matter of law. Suppressed evidence is material if ‘the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.’…We have recognized that ‘[i]mpeachment evidence is especially likely to be material when it impugns the testimony of a witness who is critical to the prosecution’s case.’ ”
It was undisputed that the prosecution’s case against Mellen had hinged on Patti’s testimony, which had been the source of the bulk of evidence against the woman.
Wardlaw dismissed Winn’s contention that Patti’s credibility was easily impeachable without the alleged conversation. She wrote:
“The undisclosed statements were not cumulative of the other impeachment evidence presented at trial; they were of a different kind….The possibility for the defense to use statements from Laura—an immediate family member, a police officer, and a source unaffiliated with the drug culture of which both Mellen and Patti were a part—’would have provided the defense with a new and different ground of impeachment.’ ”
The panel was also convinced that Mellen had presented triable issues of fact as to Winn’s deliberate indifference. Wardlaw noted that Winn was well aware of Patti’s central importance to the case.
She also pointed out that Patti’s sister was not an ordinary layperson, but a fellow police officer “aligned with the values of trustworthiness and dependability typically associated with that profession.” Such a person’s statements should have carried great weight with Winn, Wardlaw explained.
“Although Detective Winn now disputes that she spoke with Laura Patti before trial,” she continued, “whether this conversation took place should have been a factual question for the jury to resolve at the § 1983 trial; it is not a question that the district court could resolve at summary judgment.”
Beyond the central holdings, Wardlaw also explained that it is well settled law in the Ninth Circuit that the Brady/Giglio rule’s application to police officers rather than just prosecutors was clearly established in this jurisdiction by 1978, long before Winn’s 1997 investigation.
The case is Mellen v. Winn, No. 17-55116.
Anna B. Hoffmann of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP in New York argued for Mellen. Winn was represented on appeal by Calvin R. House of Gutierrez Preciado & House LLP in Pasadena.
The Daly murder was not Winn’s first investigation resulting in a wrongful conviction.
In 1994, Felipe Gonzalez Angeles was gunned down outside a South Central brothel. Winn, who had been promoted to LAPD’s homicide division just two weeks earlier, was the lead investigator on that case, mentored by her then-partner, veteran detective Peter Razanskas.
Winn and Razanskas spoke with John Jones, a man who lived in an apartment overlooking the crime scene and claimed to have witnessed the murder. Jones indicated that three or four men had committed the murder, and that a bystander had shot one of the culprits in the leg.
Based on that description and an anonymous tip, Winn eventually arrested Reggie Cole, who had been shot in the leg years before the night of the murder. Cole went to prison for the murder, but maintained his innocence.
He was exonerated in 2008, owing to the investigative work of his court-approved defense attorney Christopher Plourd, who had been assigned to defend Cole after he had stabbed another inmate who had threatened him. Plourd is now a judge of the Imperial Superior Court.
Jones admitted to lying to the detectives, and forensic evidence showed that Angeles’s actual murderer could not have been on street level, but was likely in one of the buildings nearby.
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