Miss. mayor’s trial begins this week

Published 12:43 am Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mayor Frank Melton was elected on a promise to clean up Mississippi’s largest city and run thugs and dealers out of town. He passed out cowboy hats at his first City Council meeting before hitting the streets wearing guns and a bullet proof vest.

Now, three years later, the tough-talking former television executive is facing felony charges that could send him from City Hall to prison. He was indicted with two police bodyguards in July on charges related to the August 2006 sledgehammer destruction of a duplex apartment the mayor considered a crack house. The trial begins Wednesday.

Melton hasn’t denied leading a group of teenagers and young men — some with criminal records — to the home or participating in its destruction. But, he has said, it was a sincere effort to rid a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood of a haven for illegal drug distribution and prostitution.

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Federal prosecutors have a different take on the event: “whiskey soaked, arbitrary exercise of power and violence.”

A gag order prevents both sides from discussing the case. The defendants pleaded not guilty.

“I think that for Melton to prevail it’s going to take a Houdini-like escape,” said Mississippi College of Law Professor Matt Steffey, who has been following the trial. “It’s going to be very, very difficult for him to avoid conviction.”

The 59-year-old former TV executive and one-time director of the state’s narcotics agency established himself as a crime fighter with an opinion piece that aired on the NBC affiliate he ran for years. He would name suspected criminals on the air, and had their pictures posted on billboards. It was that reputation that helped Melton get elected with 88 percent of the vote.

Melton flashed a badge at a reception the night he was sworn in on July 4, 2005, and was captured on a video now posted on YouTube telling an excited crowd: “Batman Returns.”

It wasn’t long before his unorthodox tactics landed him in trouble with the law. And some people doubted whether he was effective. There were 1,225 violent crimes and 38 murders in Jackson the year Melton was elected, a significant amount for a city of about 175,000. The number of murders in the city increased to 40 in 2006 and 46 in 2007.

Melton liked to travel the inner city in the police department’s mobile command center with his bodyguards and Rottweiler mix, Abby, and participate in raids and checkpoints. That culminated on a summer night in 2006, when witnesses said Melton used a “Walking Tall” stick to bash the duplex apartment. Prosecutors say he was drinking scotch that night.

After busting the windows in the home, according to prosecutors, Melton urinated then approached a crowd that had gathered and asked: “Are there any other houses around here I need to knock down?”

The government wants to prohibit Melton from telling jurors that the ramshackle, turquoise-colored structure was a drug den. They know Mississippians are fed up with crime in the state’s capital and such evidence could sway the jury in Melton’s favor — that’s exactly what happened when Melton and the bodyguards were acquitted on state charges last year.

During the state trial, prosecutors tried to prevent the defense from introducing evidence that the property was used for narcotics distribution, but even their own witnesses said it was a drug den. A judge had not yet decided if he’ll allow evidence of illegal activity at the home in the upcoming trail. A motions hearing is set for Monday.

The home’s tenant, a diagnosed schizophrenic named Evans Welch, was arrested for possessing a “straight shooter” crack pipe that night, according to testimony in the state trial.

Still, prosecutors have said in court papers that Melton had no legal authorization to damage the home or its contents. They also have a witness not available in the state trial — one of the bodyguards, Marcus Wright, has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to testify against Melton. And they’ve already persuaded the judge to prohibit Melton from telling jurors about his previous efforts to fight crime.

Rulings like that in favor of the government, along with Wright’s testimony, will make a strong case for the prosecution, Steffey said.

“It’s going to be the most important news story in the state when it starts,” Steffey said. “It’s of no small consequence that the mayor of the biggest city in the state is on trial for violating the civil rights of city residents.”

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.

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 college campus.