Opening arguments begin Tuesday in Melton trial

Published 6:36 pm Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Opening arguments begin Tuesday in the felony trial of the controversial and flamboyant Jackson mayor who got elected on a promise to attack the crime problem in the capital city.

Mayor Frank Melton, a tough-talking former television executive, faces five felony charges in the sledgehammer attack on a Jackson duplex last August.

A jury of 11 women and one man was seated Monday after Judge Joe Webster whittled down a pool of more than 150 people.

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Melton, who recently had heart surgery, appeared fatigued during the daylong jury selection process, often propping his chin on his hand or staring at the floor. The mayor had no comment after court other than to say, “I’m not used to sitting that long.”

His attorney, former Jackson Mayor Dale Danks, said he could not comment other than to say he was “pleased with the way things are going.”

If convicted, Melton could trade his City Hall office for a jail cell. Convictions on all counts could carry a 50-year prison sentence.

Melton was elected in 2005 on a platform of rooting out the crime problem that is blamed for suburban flight and a shrinking tax base.

Jury selection revealed that many potential jurors were themselves touched by crime. Three members of the jury pool had relatives incarcerated for murder, six had relatives arrested at some point for drug abuse and several were victims of robberies or car theft.

Webster told the jury they would be sequestered and the trial could last about four days.

Webster is a retired circuit judge from Coahoma County. Jim Smith, chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, appointed Webster to hear the Melton trial in place of Hinds County Circuit Judge Tommie Green. Green was removed from the case without explanation by the Supreme Court not long after Melton accused her of not being impartial.

Melton would be forced to resign if convicted of a felony crime. The Jackson City Council would choose one of its members to serve as acting mayor for 60 days, in which time a special election would be held.

Prosecutors claim Melton in August of last year ordered two police officers, who served as his bodyguards, and a group of youngsters to destroy the apartment because the mayor considered it a “crack house.” The property owners deny the home was a drug haven.

Melton and Detectives Marcus Wright and Michael Recio are charged with malicious mischief, two counts of conspiracy and directing a minor to commit a felony. Melton and Wright also are charged with burglary. All three have pleaded not guilty.

The mayor is a former executive with Jackson-based WLBT and was appointed in December 2002 by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to head the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. It was a position Melton held for about a year.

This will be Melton’s second criminal trial in less than six months. He avoided jail time in a separate case on weapons charges and was allowed to stay in office under a plea deal he struck with prosecutors in November. In that case, he was charged with illegally carrying a pistol to a park, church and college campus.