Defense’s turn in Mississippi mayor’s trial

Published 11:33 pm Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The federal trial of Jackson Mayor Frank Melton, accused of leading a sledgehammer attack on a suspected crack house, resumes Tuesday when defense attorneys present their side of the high profile case.

Melton, 59, and his former police bodyguard, Michael Recio, are accused of leading a group of young men to use sticks and sledgehammers to damage the duplex apartment in August 2006. Melton considered it a crack house.

Melton and Recio, 39, are charged with violating the civil rights of the home’s owner and tenant. They pleaded not guilty. They were acquitted of state charges related to the same incident in April 2007.

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The mayor’s defense in the state case was that he was only trying to help the city by ridding it of a drug den. The mayor walked out of court that time to cheers from supporters.

This time, however, one of Melton’s other bodyguards, Marcus Wright, took a plea deal and testified against his former boss. Wright became a key witness for the prosecution and said last week that Melton was drinking heavily that night and knew they weren’t legally authorized to damage the home or its contents.

But when Melton’s attorney pressed Wright about a previous statement that Melton was not drunk that night, Wright said his “memory changed.”

Wright taking the stand was just one highlight in a week of testimony that was sometimes as bizarre as the alleged crime itself. The duplex’s owner had to take a break from testifying due to chest pains, the government asked for Melton’s bond to be revoked because he personally served a subpoena, and one government witness said he drinks 17 to 18 beers to get a “buzz.”

Melton is a former television executive and a one-time head of the state narcotics agency. He was elected by a landslide in 2005 on a tough-on-crime platform. He was already a well-known public figure from his tough-talking days in television, during which he often chastised city officials and criminals in an opinion piece called “The Bottom Line.”