Judge allows larger jury pool for mayor’s trial

Published 1:22 pm Friday, September 19, 2008

The notoriety of Jackson Mayor Frank Melton and two police bodyguards, accused in a sledgehammer attack on an alleged crack house, warrants a larger pool of jurors than attorneys normally pick from for a federal trial, a judge ruled.

Melton, 59, and his bodyguards were charged in July with conspiracy and violating the civil rights of the owner of the private residence — a duplex apartment in an economically strapped area of Mississippi’s capital city.

Melton is accused of leading a group of young men to the house in 2006 and using sticks and a sledgehammer to knock out walls and windows. The mayor has claimed the home was rented by a known drug addict and had become a haven for illegal activity.

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Melton’s attorney, former State Rep. John Reeves, said Wednesday he could not discuss the case.

“I have a policy at my law office. We don’t comment about cases that are in litigation — any case,” he said.

The three-count federal indictment came more than a year after Melton and the bodyguards — Jackson police officers Michael Recio and Marcus Wright — were cleared of state felony charges related to the same high-profile incident.

The acquittals on state charges capped a four-day trial that left Melton appearing fatigued and his supporters chanting and dancing outside the courthouse.

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III ruled Tuesday that the larger pool of potential jurors is needed due “to the nature of the case and the notoriety of the defendants.”

The order did not specify how many potential jurors would be called. Jurors for the Jackson division of U.S. District Court are called from 13 counties. The jury will eventually have 12 members, probably with a few alternates.

Melton is well known in the area. Before becoming mayor he made a name for himself as an executive with WLBT-TV, a Jackson station. He often lambasted city leaders in editorials called “The Bottom Line” and plastered pictures of suspected drug dealers on billboards in the metro area.

Jordan rejected a government request to allow individual questioning of potential jurors. He said jurors will be questioned in open court but can approach the bench if their answers to questions “are confidential, embarrassing or potentially prejudicial.”

The trial is set to begin Nov. 12.

Melton, who also served as the head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, was elected in 2005 by more than 80 percent of the vote. But 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 trouble.

Melton struck a plea deal in 2006 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.