Jackson mayor acquitted of bust-up of suspected crack house

Published 6:55 pm Friday, April 27, 2007

Jackson’s controversial, crime-fighting mayor walked out of court a free man Thursday after a jury acquitted him and two police bodyguards of using sledgehammers and sticks to demolish a duplex the mayor considered a “crack house.”

The jury of 11 women and one man deliberated about seven hours before finding Mayor Frank Melton and the officers not guilty on all 11 felony counts.

One woman was escorted out of the courtroom for a loud outburst when the first not guilty verdict was read and dozens of supporters erupted in applause when court was adjourned.

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Melton, who appeared fatigued by the end of the four-day trial, brushed by well-wishers and news reporters without comment as he left the courthouse and many people were literally dancing in the streets. Deshauwn Walker, 17, held up a sign that said “fight Frank fight.”

Melton climbed into his black Chrysler 300 and was driven away with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing on the dashboard.

The first-term mayor was elected by a landslide in 2005 on promises to root out the crime problem that is blamed for suburban flight and an evaporating tax base in Mississippi’s capital city. It wasn’t long before his unorthodox tactics, including carrying guns and cruising the inner city in the police department’s mobile command center, landed him in the sights of the district attorney’s office.

Melton would have been forced to resign if convicted of any of the felonies and the trial appeared to wear on the 57-year-old mayor, who recently under went heart surgery.

“Anytime a person goes through something like this, he’s got to change his life,” said defense attorney Merrida Coxwell. “We might have a changed mayor.”

Melton and Detectives Michael Recio and Marcus Wright were each charged with malicious mischief and two counts of conspiracy in the August attack on a duplex they considered a blight on the community. Melton and Wright also were charged with burglary. All three had pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutor Dewey Arthur said during closing arguments that the defendants had no reason to bust windows and tear down walls in the rented home of Evans Welch, a diagnosed schizophrenic with a history of drug use who is currently incarcerated in an unrelated stabbing.

The defense acknowledged during the trial that the ramshackle duplex was damaged but told jurors there was no malice involved, and that therefore an element needed for conviction was missing.

The mayor has said the charges against him were politically motivated and the result of his public criticism of District Attorney Faye Peterson, who the mayor says has a dismal record of convicting criminals.

Peterson said after the trial that the jury made an “unfortunate decision.”

During the trial, the prosecution tried to prevent the defense from admitting evidence that the property was used for narcotics distribution, but even their own witnesses said it was a drug den.

After reading the verdict, Judge Joe Webster read to the court city policies dealing with dangerous properties.

“There is a statutory procedure that should be followed,” Webster said.

Melton, a former television executive and former head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, was elected in 2005 by more than 80 percent of the vote.

In November, Melton struck a plea deal with prosecutors in a separate case in which he was accused of illegally carrying a pistol to a park, church and college campus. The deal allowed him to avoid jail time and stay in office.