Mistrial for Miss. mayor accused in duplex attack

Published 11:37 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The outspoken mayor of Jackson could face another trial after a judge declared a mistrial Tuesday on charges that he led a vigilante-style sledgehammer attack on a suspected crack house.

Jurors told U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III they were hopelessly deadlocked after five days of deliberations. They said they were at an impasse last Thursday, but Jordan told them to keep trying.

“The mayor has lived to fight another day,” Melton attorney John Reeves told reporters outside the courthouse.

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Prosecutors suggested they might want to try Melton again, and asked for a conference call next week. At the mention of another trial, Melton, 59, took off his wire-rim glasses and wiped his brow, but didn’t comment to reporters.

He and former bodyguard Michael Recio could have faced up to 25 years in federal prison if convicted of violating the civil rights of the duplex’s owner and tenant. They are free on bond for now.

Melton, a self-proclaimed tough-on-crime politician serving his first term, said he was only trying to help the city and the tenant. His attorneys argued the duplex was a haven for drug distribution and other illegal acts.

The attack was symbolic of Melton’s Wild West approach to leading the city. Shortly after he was elected in 2005, he could be found in tough neighborhoods, packing guns and participating in police checkpoints. He even passed out cowboy hats to city council members. But it wasn’t long before his unorthodox tactics landed him in court.

Prosecutors say that the night of the attack, Aug. 26, 2006, Melton and his bodyguards loaded a group of troubled young men into the police department’s mobile command center and took them to a preseason NFL game.

After the game, they said, a drunk Melton decided to go check on the duplex’s tenant, Evan Welch, who Melton referred to as “Bubba. Melton said Welch was being bullied by drug dealers, though Welch denies that.

Melton ordered the young men to get sticks and sledgehammers. He broke windows while they tore down walls, prosecutors said. “Are there any other houses around here I need to knock down?” the mayor allegedly asked when the damage was done.

It’s not the first time Melton and Recio were tried in connection with the attack. The two and another former bodyguard, Marcus Wright, were acquitted of state charges in April 2007 after convincing a jury they were trying to shut down a haven of illegal activity. This time, federal prosecutors persuaded Wright to take a deal, plead guilty to a misdemeanor and testify against his former boss.

The latest trial suffered setbacks from the start. It took five days to seat the jury after nearly 100 people were called from 45 counties in south and central Mississippi, far from Jackson. Several said they would be unwilling to convict the mayor because they believed he was acting in the best interests of the city.

Despite his legal problems, Melton remains extremely popular with some Mississippi residents fed up with crime in the capital city. He first made a name for himself after taking over an NBC affiliate in the 1980s, when he called out suspected criminals on the air during his opinion segment, “The Bottom Line.”

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