Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jul 2008
Source: Clarion-Ledger, The (Jackson, MS)
Copyright: 2008 The Clarion-Ledger
Author: Chris Joyner


For metro-Jackson residents, last week's indictment of Mayor Frank
Melton and his two police bodyguards seems like deja vu.

After all, Jackson's first-term mayor spent eight months successfully
fighting a criminal indictment for his role in damaging a reputed drug
house the night of Aug. 26, 2006. That fight ended in an April 2007
trial and not-guilty verdicts for Melton and Jackson police Detectives
Marcus Wright and Michael Recio, his bodyguards.

The new indictment stems from the same event, but the charges come
from the federal system, making it a whole new ballgame for the three

Instead of fighting felony charges of burglary and malicious mischief,
Melton, Wright and Recio will be defending themselves on charges they
violated the U.S. Constitution. If the case goes to trial, they also
will face veteran civil rights prosecutors from the U.S. Department of
Justice in Washington and a broader jury pool.

When facing state charges, Melton assembled a legal team that included
former Mayor Dale Danks Jr., his associate Michael Cory and criminal
specialist Buddy Coxwell as well as Robert Shuler Smith and Winston
Thompson. Smith now is Hinds County district attorney and Thompson his

In the trial, Melton's assemblage of legal talent picked apart the
case built by then-District Attorney Faye Peterson's team. Mississippi
College Law School professor Matt Steffey said Melton faces a
different kind of opponent this time.

The Justice Department and the FBI are deep in resources and talent,
he said.

"It's a career federal prosecutor and not lawyers in a state DA's
office," he said. "They've got resources and time that the average
district attorney doesn't have."

When the federal government gets involved, it can "dig into every
little corner of his life," he said.

The lead prosecutor in the case is Justice Department Civil Rights
Deputy Chief Mark Blumberg, who has decades of experience prosecuting
civil rights crimes around the nation.

Melton, Wright and Recio are charged with violating the rights of the
owner and tenant of the house to be free from unreasonable search and
seizure, unconstitutionally misusing police power and committing a
violent crime while in possession of firearms.

In their trial, Melton and his bodyguards were charged under state
laws of burglary and malicious mischief, which had evil intentions as
one of the criteria for breaking them. While the damage to the West
Ridgeway Street house might be mischievous, defense lawyers called
witnesses who testified the property had a reputation as a "crack
house" and the mayor was operating with the good intention of shutting
it down.

"It was clear damage was done to the house," Danks said at the time.
"But the prosecution must again prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt
that ... Mayor Melton and (Michael) Recio and Marcus Wright had an
evil motive and an evil intent to do the things that they claimed they

Frame of mind is not an element in the federal law the men are accused
of breaking. However, context is important, criminal lawyer John
Colette said.

"I think that's relevant. You've got to explain what he was doing
there," he said. "Under totality of circumstances, their actions might
have seemed reasonable."

The "totality of circumstances" test has been the U.S. Supreme Court's
measuring stick during the past 25 years for determining probable
cause for the issuance of a warrant. Colette said that test may apply
since the tenant of the house, middle-aged Evans Welch, was arrested
on several charges, including an outstanding warrant for marijuana
possession the night the house was damaged.

Colette, who has experience defending clients in the federal system,
believes the case against the mayor will be "somewhat difficult" to

"I think the mayor's concern was ridding Jackson of some of these
crack houses," he said.

Prosecutors also will have to show Melton, Wright and Recio actively
participated in damaging the house.

"What did the mayor actually do as opposed to what did somebody else
do? That's what's going to be the difference in federal court," he

Colette's interest in the case may not be entirely academic. Colette
would not comment on whether he was involved in representing the mayor.

Officially, no attorneys for the defense have been listed, although
Danks has accepted the indictment on behalf of all three men. An
initial appearance is scheduled for Wednesday in U.S. District Court
in Jackson.

Another important difference between the state trial and Melton's new
federal charges is that, this time, the jury will be drawn from a
multi-county area rather than just Hinds County. What jurors in a
federal trial might do remains unknown, said Jackson City Council
member Frank Bluntson.

"They come from all walks of life," he said.

But these jurors, like those who heard Melton's first trial, "know all
about crime in Jackson and elsewhere. They know how it's tearing up
people and tearing up families. I think any jury is going to side with
somebody who is trying to do something about crime."

That person is Melton, he said.

Colette said the jury issue may be a wash. Ideally, the defense would
like a "clean slate" to work with.

"You really don't want anybody who knows anything about the case
except what they hear in the courtroom," he said.

One other thing working in the mayor's favor is that he did not take
the stand in the state trial. While he has broadly hinted at his role
in damaging the house, Melton has never fully admitted what he did.

At the trial, prosecutors called witnesses who testified Melton used a
big stick to damage the house while directing a cadre of young men
armed with sledgehammers. The federal indictment repeats those

"He now has to be doubly glad he did not take the stand last time,"
Steffey said. "If you don't speak, you don't put your foot in your

Staff writer Jerry Mitchell contributed to this report.
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