Trial begins for Miss. mayor in duplex destruction

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jury selection began Monday in the federal trial of Jackson Mayor Frank Melton, who faces three felony charges related to the sledgehammer destruction of a duplex apartment he considers a crack house.

Melton sat next to his co-defendant, former police officer Michael Recio, as a pool of about 100 potential jurors filed into the courtroom. The 59-year-old mayor appeared gaunt. The trial has already been delayed once due to his heart problems.

Melton and Recio, the mayor’s former bodyguard, are accused of violating the civil rights of the duplex owner and tenant for allegedly leading a group of young men to damage the home with sticks and a sledgehammer in 2006. Each faces a maximum sentence of 25 years if convicted. Both have pleaded not guilty and maintain they did nothing wrong. Melton has said he was only trying to help the community.

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The potential jurors were called from 45 counties in the southern half of the state because of intense media coverage. Still, of the 70 people left in the jury pool at the end of the day, fewer than a dozen said they had never heard of the case.

The individual questioning also underscored Melton’s popularity among some Mississippians. Two of the first three potential jurors questioned by the judge said they would have a hard time convicting him.

Melton, a former television executive, was well-known even before running for mayor. He hosted an opinion piece for years on the nightly news in which he criticized city officials he considered ineffective and named suspected criminals on air.

The first potential juror questioned, a middle-aged divorced woman, said it would take a “powerful argument” to persuade her to convict him.

“I back Mayor Melton,” she said.

She said it was not fair that Melton is being tried again. He was acquitted of state charges related to the same incident in April 2007.

“I don’t know why we are here,” the woman said. “My opinion is that this was settled.”

Another woman, a high school teacher, said she met Melton a decade ago when he gave a motivational speech to students at an alternative school.

“What he was telling those students was outstanding,” she said. “That made me have a good opinion about him.”

Both women were excused from jury duty.

Outside the courthouse, two people held signs in support of the mayor. One asked: “Do you want a crack house next to you or in your neighborhood?”

Clarence Bolls, who owns a business near the damaged home, told reporters that Melton is being prosecuted for trying to tackle drug problems that have gone unchecked for years.

“They’re still selling drugs hand over fist down there. It looks like a Third World country,” Bolls said. “This is not about Frank Melton, this is about all of us. … We are suffering.”

Prosecutors say Melton had no legal authorization to damage the home and did so under the influence of scotch in “a whiskey soaked, arbitrary exercise of power and violence.”

Melton, a one-time head of the state narcotics agency, was elected by a landslide in 2005 on a promise to clean up crime in Mississippi’s largest city. He became a fixture in high-crime areas, wearing guns and a bulletproof vest and cruising around in the police department’s mobile command center. He participated in police checkpoints and went door-to-door at seedy hotels. But his unorthodox tactics soon got him in trouble with the law.

A gag order in the case prevents those involved from commenting. However, the mayor’s attorneys have claimed in court filings that he was only trying to help the duplex’s tenant, who they claim was being bullied by drug dealers who used the home as a distribution site. Melton also has said the home was a blight on the community.

Besides being acquitted on state charges related to the duplex incident, Melton 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.