A faulty police investigation is often the reason the innocent initially face charges. A careful examination of the police work in the case can be very telling. When a criminal defense attorney is first introduced to a case the only piece of information he or she has when evaluating a case is the client’s version of events. Already, an attorney should have an idea of what he or she would like to find out next. The police report is the next piece of information that will reveal relevant facts, including why the police decided to focus on the client. However, as I have learned from reviewing multiple wrongful conviction cases while interning at Innocence Matters, a defense attorney should evaluate a police report with wary eyes and not rely on the words of the police nor their investigation.
When an objective review of the police investigation shows that the police dismissed other relevant leads in favor of a suspicious informant’s version, the defense should appreciate the need for extensive independent investigation. As amply illustrated in the Susan Mellen case, it is important to continue to investigate beyond the information that has been provided by the police and prosecutor and to follow all possible leads that may prove a client’s innocence. When Mellen was arrested in 1997, homicide detectives failed to investigate a gang member whose name appeared on several confidential informant reports. The lead detective simply decided to ignore that lead (and many others), which we now know would have changed the outcome of this case, and instead opted to take the word of a notorious liar. The trial prosecutor made things worse by blindly relying on this astonishingly flawed police investigation. But what is particularly troubling for me as a future defense lawyer, is Susan’ attorney’s lack of expertise and incompetence in defending this matter. He failed to follow obvious leads that would have undoubtedly created reasonable doubt in Mellen’s alleged involvement in such a gruesome murder.
Seventeen years later, Innocence Matters is picking up the work that was left undone by the defense lawyer, but this time, to overturn Mellen’s conviction. Starting with the main witness in the case—who had been previously identified as an “unreliable informant” by the Torrance Police Department in 1993—Innocence Matters has been exposing the falsity of the prosecution’s case. We now know that the prosecutor built a case against Mellen based entirely on lies from a witness whose own sister, a police officer, did not trust. Although a lot of information was kept from the trial attorney at the time, it is apparent that his failure to conduct his own investigation contributed to the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. Thus, when defending the innocent, it is important that defense attorneys take an active role in the investigation of their case and vigilantly pursue all possible avenues that could prove their client’s innocence. Mellen has always maintained her innocence, and now her innocence is coming to light thanks to the extensive investigative work by Innocence Matters.