Witness misconduct claim limited in mayor’s trial

Published 11:23 pm Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Defense attorneys in the federal trial of Mayor Frank Melton will be limited to discussing an “allegation” rather than salacious claims by a transvestite prostitute in trying to discredit the government’s star witness, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Melton, 59, and one of his former police bodyguards, Michael Recio, are each charged with three felonies related to the sledgehammer destruction of a duplex the mayor considered a crack house. They pleaded not guilty and Melton has said he was only trying to clean up the community.

The mayor’s other former bodyguard, Marcus Wright, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a deal with prosecutors and agreed to testify against the others.

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Defense lawyers wanted to present evidence about an unsubstantiated claim that Wright had sex with male prostitutes as a way to discredit him. A transvestite claims that two other male prostitutes said they had sex with Wright in 2005. The defense claimed prosecutors used the allegation to coerce Wright into cooperating.

U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III will only allow defense attorneys to ask Wright during cross-examination if he was aware of an “allegation” and if that was a factor in his decision to plead guilty. The judge noted the allegation was made by a man who is “not, on paper anyway, the most credible witness.”

And, the judge has said, there’s no evidence that prosecutors knew about the allegation or used it against Wright.

Jordan made the ruling just before beginning the second day of jury selection in the case. Potential jurors were called from 45 counties in the southern half of Mississippi because of intense media coverage.

The judge is questioning potential jurors individually to find out what they know about the case and if they can be impartial. It’s a tedious process.

Many of those interviewed so far said they have a favorable opinion of the mayor and might have a hard time convicting him. Most of those accept Melton’s explanation that his intentions were honorable in damaging the duplex because it was a haven for drug distribution and he was only trying to clean up Mississippi’s largest city.

“I feel that his heart was innocent because his intentions were right,” said one potential juror, a retired preacher’s wife from Bentonia. She added that convicting Melton “would bother me for the rest of my life.”

Another woman, a widow from Foxworth, said she wouldn’t be “able to be fair.”

“Even though it was wrong for him to destroy somebody else’s property, it sounds like to me he did a favor to the community it was in,” she said.

Another potential juror, a man from Biloxi, however, said he believes prosecutors’ version of events: Melton had allegedly been drinking that night and went on a vigilante raid.

“It would take a lot of evidence to sway what I believe,” the man said.

Melton allegedly led a group of young men to the duplex in August 2006 and ordered them to attack it with sticks and sledgehammers. He and Recio are accused of violating the civil rights of the duplex owner and tenant.

They were acquitted of state charges in April 2007. During that trial, Melton’s attorneys argued that he was just keeping a campaign promise to stamp out crime.

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.”