Miss. mayor set to defend attack on city house

Published 1:49 pm Thursday, October 23, 2008

A mayor facing federal charges for demolishing an alleged crack house wants to tell jurors he was battling urban crime, but prosecutors contend the destruction was nothing more than a “whiskey soaked, arbitrary exercise of power and violence.”

Jackson Mayor Frank Melton and two bodyguards were charged in July with violating two people’s civil rights by using sticks and sledgehammers to damage a duplex apartment the mayor considered a drug den.

Federal prosecutors want to stop Melton from telling jurors that the duplex was a haven for drugs and prostitution, according to motions filed this week and last in U.S. District Court. Crime has been a major problem in Mississippi’s largest city, and such testimony could help Melton win over the jury.

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A judge did not immediately rule on prosecutors’ request. Melton’s trial is set for Nov. 12.

Melton and the body guards were cleared of state charges in the case in April 2007, after the mayor’s attorneys successfully argued the men were trying to rid the area of a blight on the community. Melton doesn’t dispute he ordered the demolition but his attorneys argued at the state trial that there was no malicious intent.

Melton was sworn into office in 2005 after winning by a landslide on a tough-on-crime platform. But his unorthodox tactics, including carrying guns and cruising the inner city in the police department’s mobile command center, soon landed him in trouble.

Prosecutors claim Melton was drinking scotch on Aug. 26, 2006, when he led a group of young men to the home and allegedly directed them to break down walls and bust windows.

A motion filed by Melton last week included an affidavit from Christopher Walker, who acknowledged buying crack cocaine at the home.

Walker, who served time for manslaughter and drug-related crimes, described the house as a “nasty, filthy, drug and prostitution hole that stank so bad you could hardly breathe in it. But nobody cared because what they came there for was drugs, gambling and whores.”

Prosecutors argued in a motion filed Monday that those allegations are unsubstantiated and beside the point: “Melton’s sole argument in favor of admitting the ’drug evidence’ amounts to nothing more than a plea for forgiveness because his motives were allegedly pure when he decided to break the law.”

One of the bodyguards acquitted on state charges has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to testify against Melton in the federal case.

Melton and the other bodyguard — Michael Recio — are charged with violating the constitutional rights of the duplex owner and tenant. A separate charge alleges they violated those rights under color of law. Both charges carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence. A third charge alleges the men committed a crime of violence while in possession of a firearm.

They have pleaded not guilty.