Judge delays Jackson, Miss. mayor’s federal trial

Published 2:17 pm Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mayor Frank Melton’s federal trial was postponed Tuesday to give defense lawyers more time to sort through thousands of documents related to a sledgehammer attack on an alleged crack house.

Melton and his former bodyguard face three felony charges and a maximum 25-year sentence if convicted of damaging the home, which the mayor considered a crack house.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin this week, but U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III agreed to give the defense more time to study nearly 4,000 documents handed over this month by prosecutors.

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Jordan also said he did not want to send jurors home for a long weekend over Thanksgiving, which could put them at risk of hearing about the high-profile case. He set trial for Jan. 5.

Melton and former bodyguard Michael Recio, a police officer, are accused of leading several young men — some with criminal records — to a duplex in August 2006 and ordering them to break down walls and bust windows with sticks and sledgehammers.

Jordan has not decided if he’ll let Melton present evidence that the home was a drug den.

“This might be the most significant ruling I have to make in this case,” he said Tuesday.

Prosecutors have fought to prohibit any mention of illegal drug activity, fearing a repeat of a state trial last year in which Melton and two bodyguards were acquitted after persuading the jury the home was a blight on the community.

Melton’s attorney, John Reeves, has said it would be impossible to defend the case without mentioning the home’s reputation. Otherwise, he said, jurors would think Melton “just went over there willy-nilly and tore this guy’s house up.”

Reeves says prosecutors must prove that Melton had an “evil motive” — a phrase used in jury instructions in some federal cases. He wants to present evidence of drug use and prostitution at the duplex to prove the mayor had good intentions — not an evil motive — in shutting down a haven for illegal activity.

Melton was not in court Tuesday. His attorney would not comment due to a gag order.

Earlier this week, Jordan rejected defense motions to throw out the charges and to hold separate trials for Melton and Recio.

Defense attorneys had asked for the case to be thrown out of court. They accused the government of withholding information that could be damaging to the prosecution’s star witness — Melton’s other former bodyguard, Marcus Wright.

Wright pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to cooperated. The defense claims that prosecutors used unfounded allegations about a tryst with male prostitutes to pressure Wright to testify against his former boss.

Prosecutors sought sanctions against the defense in court motions this week, saying the defense lawyers “made frivolous and false allegations against government counsel” and “publicized inflammatory and unconfirmed allegations against a government witness.”

Jordan said he would decide later if sanctions were warranted.

Meanwhile, Recio’s attorney, Cynthia Stewart, had asked that her client be tried separately because she said he was not involved in the destruction of the house. She also said Recio’s case would be hurt by Melton’s likely defense, which she described as: “I did it and I’m entitled to do it.”

Prosecutors argued, however, that Recio is just as responsible because he didn’t stop the mayor and later tried to cover up the crime.

Melton and 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.

Melton, a former television executive and one-time head of the state narcotics agency, was elected in 2005 on a promise to clean up crime in Mississippi’s largest city. He became a fixture downtown wearing guns and a bulletproof vest, but soon ran into trouble with the law.

This will be Melton’s third criminal trial since taking office.

Besides being acquitted on state charges in the duplex case, he avoided jail time on weapons charges and was allowed to stay in office under a plea deal he struck with prosecutors in November 2007. In that case, he was charged with illegally carrying a pistol to a park, church and a college campus.