Pubdate: Sun, 09 Nov 2008
Source: Clarion-Ledger, The (Jackson, MS)
Copyright: 2008 The Clarion-Ledger
Author: Chris Joyner


Mayor Frank Melton will enter a courtroom this week for the third
time in two years to face criminal charges arising from his cowboy
crime-fighting style.

This time, he'll face the federal government and charges that could
land him in prison for up to 25  years.

While Melton's reputation for unorthodox behavior goes back to his
days as a television commentator, as mayor he sounded an early
warning in his July 4, 2005, inaugural address.

"We will deal with crime in a way you have never seen before," he

Over the next 14 months, Melton, flanked by his armed police
bodyguards, cruised the city's streets in the Jackson Police
Department's Mobile Command Unit,  stopped traffic to conduct
impromptu searches for  weapons or drugs, and carried out crusades
against  hoodlums, suspected and actual.

Quickly, the mayor's crusader persona began raising eyebrows among
citizens and state and local officials.  Tough talk about crime
devolved into scenes of Melton banging on doors with the butt of a
shotgun and declaring the city to be under a "state of emergency."
He also began consorting with a cadre of young men, some facing
charges for violent crimes.

On Aug. 26, 2006, after taking in part of a New Orleans Saints
preseason football game at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium,
Melton and his entourage paid the first of two visits that night to
1305 Ridgeway St. That nighttime raid left gaping holes in the
northwest  Jackson duplex and urgent questions on whether the  mayor
had violated the law and the trust of his office.

Beginning this week, Melton will defend himself in the second trial
involving the Ridgeway Street duplex.

Soon after the 2006 raid, Melton constructed a narrative that rested
on the reputation of the duplex as a drug house. But he skipped over
exactly how the damage to the house was done. Residents of the
neighborhood said Melton directed a group of young men to destroy the
house using sledgehammers. Melton, they  said, contributed to the
destruction, using a "Walking  Tall" stick to smash out windows.

In April 2007, a Hinds County jury found Melton and bodyguards
Michael Recio and Marcus Wright not guilty of state felony charges,
including malicious mischief,  but they had little time to savor the
victory. The case was won largely on Melton's contention that the
house  was used to sell drugs, although no drugs were confiscated
that night.

A federal investigation began soon after the state trial with
numerous officials from City Hall summoned again and again to testify
before a grand jury.

In July, after a year-long probe, Melton, Wright and Recio were
served with a three-count indictment. The men were charged with
violating the constitutional  prohibition on unreasonable search and
seizure of Evans  Welch, who was living in the duplex, and Jennifer
Sutton, who owns the structure.

They also are accused of violating those civil rights  "under color of
law" and committing a violent crime  while possessing a handgun.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Jordan has placed a gag order,
restricting people involved with the case from saying much publicly.
But in an unpublished interview  earlier this fall, Melton said he was
only carrying out  his promise to make the city safer. If anything,
this  is a matter for civil court, he said.

Melton has described the damage done to the house as a  "procedural

"This is about a damn crack house, and it has cost me a  lot," he

Federal prosecutors want to limit Melton's ability to use that
defense again, but Jordan has not ruled on whether to allow evidence
of drug sales or use in the Ridgeway Street corridor.

Melton and Recio were further handicapped when Wright  pleaded guilty
last month to a lesser charge and agreed to testify for the

City Councilman Frank Bluntson, a longtime personal  friend of the
mayor, said Melton is doing "as well as can be expected." Melton
admits he has made mistakes,  Bluntson said, but he never had bad

"I still believe that he was trying to do what he believed was
right," he said. "Whether you like it or not, the man is very
passionate. He cares a lot,  especially about senior citizens and
young people. He  would give his right arm for them."

Win or lose, Melton's legal troubles have consumed his tenure as
mayor. In the unpublished interview, Melton said he had no regrets
about serving as mayor.

"I'm glad I ran. I have learned a lot as a human being. I've had
great growth as a person," he said.

Even with that growth, Melton is diminished.

His legal problems have sapped his personal finances. Melton said he
spent $300,000 of his own money defending himself against state
charges and estimates he will spend between $150,000 and $500,000 on
his  federal defense.

Melton spent less on lawyers in November 2006 when he avoided a trial
on gun-violation charges when he  pleaded guilty in a plea agreement
to two misdemeanor gun charges and no contest to a third, avoiding a
possible felony conviction. He allegedly carried a gun onto the
campus of the Mississippi College School of  Law.

Speaking at the Jackson Police Academy graduation Thursday, a
wisecracking Melton - who long has boasted of the millions he made in
television broadcasting -  described himself as "poor."

"I've been rich, and I paid it all to lawyers," he  said. "The more
poor you are, the less you get sued."

Melton, 59, also has suffered physically with heart problems that
worsened after his first indictment. In  January 2007, he underwent
bypass surgery in his native Texas. Two months later, he returned to
a local  hospital with chest pains hours after a warrant was  issued
for his arrest on charges - later dismissed -  that he violated the
terms of his bail.

Earlier this year, he returned to the hospital to have a pacemaker
implanted. This is not the way he pictured his first term in office,
said Melton, who has said he  intends to seek re-election.

"I didn't expect this. Never in my wildest dreams," he  said.
"Mistakes were made."

Violent crime in the city has not decreased during Melton's

Violent crime in the city rose 42 percent during his first year in
office. It dipped by 13 percent in 2007,  but JPD figures show violent
crimes are up 7 percent  this year. The city is on pace for 67
homicides this year, the most in more than a decade.

Former Jackson Mayor Dale Danks Jr., who defended  Melton on the state
charges and has served as his  personal attorney, said voters loved
Melton's message  and personal charisma, and Melton brought genuine
passion to the job to reduce crime and improve life for the city's
youths. But he said the city is a "jealous mistress" with many needs
and Melton's hands-on approach did not translate to fixing long-term
problems like the city's crumbling roads and sewers.

"I think he was shocked to realize how big a job being mayor is," he
said. "He'd rather talk about taking in one young person who is in
trouble or on the road to trouble than he would all of the other
duties and responsibilities of being mayor."
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