When a person is wrongfully incarcerated, her entire family is affected. And when a parent is wrongfully convicted, nobody suffers more than her children. That’s exactly what happened to Susan Mellen and her three children, Julie, Jessica and Donnie.
Jessica Besch was 9 years old when she and her mother went out for a Happy Meal on August 25, 1997. Instead of a happy memory, Jessica lives with the nightmare of watching her mother tackled by police in the McDonald’s parking lot. Instead of the Happy Meal toy, Jessica received a lifelong struggle: make the truth known so her mother could be a free woman.
For the next 17 years, Jessica knew her mother was innocent but did not know how to prove it.
We never felt like we had hope because of her sentencing, and we just thought, oh, you know, she was there for life without parole. We didn’t have a lot of people to go to help us.
Eventually Mark Fenn, a self-proclaimed investigator who offered his services for free, came along to help. Jessica was “super excited because he kind of instilled the hope again.” But he lied to her when he said he had a volunteer lawyer and investigator working on the case. He lied to her when he told her he had gotten June Patti to admit that she made the whole story up. He lied to her when he said “your mom will be home soon.” Even years later, nobody else was able to unravel the web of lies June Patti had spun.
It would have been easy for Jessica to lose hope and lose faith in everybody who claimed to help her mother. But Jessica knew the truth and would not be so easily discouraged. That’s why when Payaso reached out to Jessica earlier this year, she took a chance to get more information about her mother. She was not intimidated by Payaso’s gang membership, which she figured out by the tattoos on his face. She bravely asked him point blank about her mother. She did not stop with his definitive statement that Susan was innocent, with him saying “She took my place.” Jessica needed more than a couple of short sentences, and she wasn’t going to stop until she had enough to get her mother out of prison.
Even though she never heard of Innocence Matters before, even though she had seen her mother’s prior legal teams unable to show her mother was innocent, Jessica took a chance and she worked tirelessly with Deirdre O’Connor and the rest of the Innocence Matters to finally discover the truth. Her brave actions helped re-open her mother’s case and have proven crucial in helping her mother get out of jail.
Join us at the Courageous Truth Award to hear Jessica’s full story and celebrate Susan’s reunion with her adult children and her first grandchild!