Testimony: Jackson mayor and bodyguards smashed duplex windows, walls

Published 3:35 pm Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mayor Frank Melton and two police bodyguards used sticks and sledgehammers to bash in windows and walls of a Jackson duplex the mayor considered a “crack house,” jurors heard in the profanity-laced opening day of testimony in the felony trial of the mayor and officers.

The prosecution rested its case Tuesday afternoon after calling 11 witnesses, including one who said he drank every day and another who said he “congratulated” the mayor for taking a stand against the city’s drug problem.

Melton — a tough-talking former television executive who was elected mayor of Mississippi’s capital city in 2005 — initially faced five felony charges in the attack on the duplex last August. A charge of directing a minor to commit a felony was dismissed Tuesday by Circuit Judge Joe Webster.

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Defense attorneys did not dispute that the turquoise-colored duplex was damaged, but said there was no “malice,” an element that must be proven for the charges to stand.

Melton claims the ramshackle structure was a “crack house” and a blight on the community. The mayor has said the charges against him are politically motivated and the result of him criticizing District Attorney Faye Peterson’s prosecution record.

Prosecutors had tried to limit defense allegations that the property was used for illegal narcotics activity, but even one of the state’s own witnesses testified the home was a “drug haven.” Testimony also revealed the home had been raided by police before, including less than two weeks before it was damaged.

A contractor testified there was nearly $38,000 in damages done to the home. The homeowner testified she paid about $25,000 for it.

Lawrence Cooper, who said he was at the duplex the night it was damaged, acknowledged that he has seen crack in the house. And, defense attorneys said the tenant, Evans Welch, was arrested for possessing a “straight shooter” crack pipe that night.

Welch, a diagnosed schizophrenic, is jailed for an unrelated stabbing and did not testify.

Cooper — who said he sometimes works as a mechanic but has no steady job — testified that he and Welch were drinking beer the night of the attack and watching “Walking Tall,” a movie about a renegade sheriff whose weapon of choice is a large stick.

Several witnesses said Melton carried a “Walking Tall” stick.

“They went in the house and started tearing up furniture and busting holes in the walls,” Cooper said, adding that the men later “started tearing whole entire walls out.”

The mayor laughed aloud when Cooper told the court he did not know some of the men were police officers. Cooper had already testified that the men were traveling in the police department’s mobile command center.

Cooper testified that he heard Melton repeatedly use a profanity that starts with an “F.” Several witnesses also testified that Melton directed at least two juveniles to participate in the attack on the duplex.

However, prosecutors asked to drop the charge of directing a minor to commit a felony after no one testified about the ages or identities of the young men.

“Frank had a big stick and the kids had sledgehammers,” said Yolanda Allen, who lives next door to the duplex. “They tore the house down.”

Former Mayor Dale Danks, one of Melton’s attorneys, said during opening arguments that the state couldn’t prove that there was malice involved, an element necessary for conviction.

“It was a true desire to address one of the biggest problems facing Jackson, the metro area and the nation as a whole,” Danks said of illicit drug activity.

Melton would be forced to resign if convicted of a felony. 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.

Melton and Jackson police Detectives Marcus Wright and Michael Recio are charged with malicious mischief and two counts of conspiracy. Melton and Wright also are charged with burglary. All three pleaded not guilty.

The mayor is a former executive with Jackson-based WLBT-TV 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.