Miss. mayor in court in alleged crack house attack

Published 2:23 pm Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lawyers for Jackson Mayor Frank Melton urged a federal judge Monday to dismiss three felony charges against him, claiming prosecutors withheld information that could damage the credibility of the government’s star witness.

Melton and his former police bodyguard face felony charges for allegedly leading a group of young men to a duplex in August 2006 and ordering them to attack it with sticks and sledgehammers. Melton says it was a crack house.

Melton and the bodyguard, Michael Recio, were in court Monday for a motions hearing in the case. The judge denied a motion to order separate trials for the two. Their trial is set to begin Wednesday, but the judge said he would decide Tuesday whether to grant a continuance at the request of defense attorneys who want more time to prepare.

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The Clarion-Ledger newspaper reported last week that documents briefly posted on a court Web site accused the government of pressuring one of Melton’s bodyguards, Marcus Wright, to plead guilty and testify by bringing up unfounded allegations that he had sex with two male prostitutes. The documents have since been sealed by the court.

The allegations of Wright’s having sex with prostitutes were not discussed openly in court, but the lawyers did allude to them.

Mark Blumberg, a prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department, said the defense posted the allegations against Wright late Friday to smear him in the media.

“That is without a doubt one of the most irresponsible pleadings I’ve ever seen in my career,” Blumberg said. He asked the court for sanctions.

A message seeking comment was left with Wright’s attorney after hours. A gag order prohibits attorneys from talking about the case.

Melton and Recio sat side by side and both wore dark suits, but they did not address the court. Instead, attorneys argued over whether Melton should be allowed to present evidence that the home was a drug den.

Prosecutors have fought to keep that evidence out of court, fearing a repeat of a state trial last year in which Melton and two bodyguards were cleared of all charges after convincing the jury the home was a blight on the community.

“The evidence is simply being offered to demonize the house,” Blumberg said.

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

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III said he would rule Tuesday on that motion.

A twist in Monday’s hearing came when Reeves said Melton and the others “didn’t tear the house down.” Melton had not denied damaging the home in the past and said he was just keeping a campaign promise to root out crime.

Reeves blamed most of the damage on “neighborhood thugs.” Reeves later said Melton “took reasonable steps to disable that place” because dealers were forcing its schizophrenic tenant to sell drugs. He did not elaborate on how Melton disabled the home.

Recio’s attorney, Cynthia Stewart, argued her client should be tried separately from Melton. She said Recio was not involved in the destruction of the house and that his 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.

“He could have arrested Frank Melton that night,” Blumberg said.

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.