Now that Mayor Frank Melton has pled guilty to gun charges, he must gird his loins for the upcoming trials against him and his two city-financed bodyguards regarding their alleged destruction of a home on Ridgeway Street. He faces five charges, including burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, malicious mischief, conspiracy to commit malicious mischief and causing or directing a minor to commit a felony.
Melton and his lawyers, including former Mayor Dale Danks, struck a last-minute plea deal with the attorney general last week to avoid facing a jury that could have sent him to prison and forced him immediately out of office. The morning after the jury was seated, Melton stood before Judge Tomie Green and admitted guilt in two misdemeanor gun crimescarrying a semi-automatic weapon into a church and into a city parkand no contest to the crime of carrying a firearm onto the campus of the Mississippi College School of Law last February. He was sentenced to six months in the Hinds County jail, but his sentence was suspended. He will spend the next year on probation, and he had to pay $1,500 in fines plus some court costs.
Attorney General Jim Hood, whose office prosecuted the case, told the media later that day that the plea meant that Melton is now under jurisdiction of the court and would go to jail if he engages in further criminal activity or violates his probation. "He will be under probationary terms. If he steps out of line, if he doesn't behave, Judge Green will put him in jail, and I don't know of any better cure for somebody who doesn't behave than a judge looking over their shoulder."
Hood said that proving the felony conviction was going to be more difficult than the misdemeanor casesboth of which came complete with visuals of the mayor and his offending weapon. JFP intern Rickey Wright had photographed Melton with his weapon at St. Andrew's Church; WLBT cameraman David Howery videotaped the armed Melton in Jaycee Park. Both were subpoenaed for the misdemeanor cases.
The felony, however, was dependent on law student Stephen Stamboulieh, who saw Melton with the weapon, as well as another student who caught a glimpse of his holster under his jacket. The prosecution also subpoenaed JFP editor Donna Ladd who had interviewed Melton illegally wearing the holster and weapon in City Hall, but without his jacket, which usually covered the weapon.
The defense planned to call students who did not see the concealed weapon under Melton's jacket, in addition to several character witnesses including WLBT General Manager Dan Modisett and former FBI agent and Melton's WLBT deputy, Joe Jackson. The weekend before the trial, the defense added Melton bodyguard Michael Recio, also under indictment in the Ridgeway case, who was expected to testify that Melton put his weapon in his car before entering the Mississippi College campus.
Because the judge had made it clear that the only defense for carrying the weapon into the school would be that Melton did not actually carry it in there, by Tuesday it was clear that the case would come down to whether the jury believed Stamboulieh or Recio. Had one juror chosen Recio's story over Stamboulieh's testimony, the case would have resulted in a hung jury, allowing Melton to walk free rather than go home under conviction and probation.
Although Hood chose to take the guaranteed convictions rather than risk a hung jury or acquittal, he said Thursday that he had faith in his star witness, who had passed a polygraph test. "We knew he was telling the truth," Hood said.
The attorney general added that the primary student who planned to testify for the defense had agreed to take a polygraph, but then reneged. "He never showed up, which tells me more than the polygraph would have told me," Hood said. Still, the attorney general said he feared that the addition of Recio to the witness list could have hung the jury and cost all three convictions.
Instead, he went for the sure thingwhich would hopefully keep Melton in line, he said, "God willing."
Ridgeway Felonies Loom
Compared to the AG's case involving Melton and weapons, the upcoming Ridgeway Street felonies, scheduled to hit Judge Green's courtroom in April, will likely be far easier to prove, attorneys say, primarily because there were a number of eyewitnesses who say they saw the men and at least one minor rip up the duplex.
"My first partner
told me that one person pointing at you in the courtroom is one thing; two people pointing at you, and you're in trouble; but three, and you're pretty well f*cked," said attorney Bill Kirksey. "The case gets a little easier if the state has 10 people getting on the witness stand saying, 'My name is so and so
and I was around so-and-so address at this date and time and I saw the property being wrecked by someone swinging a hammer,' or whatever the case is."
"The lawyers will ask, 'Will you look around the courtroom and see if you can identify the person you saw that evening?' They'll say 'He's sitting right over there, in the dark suit with the red tie.'
"Then the lawyers will say, 'Let the record reflect that he just identified the defendant Frank Melton.' Numbers can always decide the case," Kirksey added.
Of course, a jury ultimately decides the outcome, no matter how convincing the arguments on either side, Kirksey added.
"There was a DA in Dallas County, Texas, who once said, 'Justice in America is whatever the jury says it is.' No circuit judge will ever instruct a jury that they have to return a verdict. It takes all 12 to acquit. It takes all 12 to convict. Anything less is a hung jury. Do you catch my meaning? Whether it's capital murder or tearing up a house, there's always room for a case to go either way," Kirksey said.
Former Copiah County prosecutor Jim Kitchens said Judge Green's instructions to the jury will likely be simple. "It doesn't get into any kind of factual analysis," he said. "The judge is the judge of the law. The jury is the judge of the facts."
That's a different trial, however. In the meantime, by copping a plea, Melton delayed a judgment on his actions by a jury, and avoided an immediate forced removal from office and hard jail time (as long as he doesn't violate his probation). By pleading guilty to two gun charges and no contest to a third, Melton dodged the bullet of a felony conviction.
Calm Before the Next Melton Storm
Attorneys say the misdemeanor convictions should have little impact on the Ridgeway Street case, at least in terms of evidence that can be used against Melton in that trial. A prosecutor cross-examining the mayor, for example, could not bring up the fact that Melton has been convicted of gun crimes in an attempt to sway the jury.
However, the judge could take Melton's past criminal convictions into account in sentencing, should a jury convict him in the Ridgeway debacle.
Judge Green might do so, especially since she also presided over Melton's recent gun trial. That could be why Melton's attorney Dale Danks filed a Nov. 15 Supreme Court appeal to remove her from the case. Danks filed his motion on the basis that Green affected the jury pool because she "impermissibly limited the scope of voir direԗlimiting the questions that attorneys could ask potential jurors.
Former prosecutor Kitchens says he doubts Danks will be able to successfully remove Green, though.
"I don't think they have a very good chance of getting her thrown off, based on the little that I know about it," Kitchens said. "A judge has very broad discretion on what she allows to be asked, especially if she deems something to be repetitious and already covered. I wouldn't say it can't be done, but I don't think they'll have a very good chance of removing her."
The recurring factor that the city of Jackson must now contend with, during the calm between the two cases, is that its mayor is now on criminal probation. As the Jackson Free Press goes to press, the circuit court reported that the terms of Melton's probation have not yet been filed. Melton is still under the terms of his bondno drugs or alcohol, no gun-toting, no use of police equipment, no supervision of minorsbut the mayor could find his behavior altered substantially by Green.
"I expect the mayor to carefully follow the order of his probation as set out by
Green," Hood said, hinting that the mayor would not be impersonating police officers or participating in arrests over the next year. "He's subject to the conditions of the bond that he's under until this other case is resolved, which prohibits him from being near a firearm."
Melton can spend the next few months snuggled up to his gun permit, if not his guns, though. The language of the probation may not affect his ability to legally wield a firearm, even if his active bond momentarily does. While a felony conviction results in the loss of a gun permit, the Mississippi Department of Safety does not automatically revoke permits for misdemeanor convictions. Thus, Melton may be able to keep the concealed-weapons permit that he only bothered to apply for a month before Hood warned him about carrying weapons.
Even if he officially keeps his permit, Green still can disarm Melton through alternative methods. Or as Kitchens says, "There's more than one way to skin a cat."
"I don't think a judge would have the authority to revoke your permit to carry a concealed weapon, just like a judge can't revoke your driver's license. The commissioner of public safety does that, but she could still get the guns. If a judge didn't want a person on probation to carry a gun, he or she could just put that in the probation order, with no reference to the permit at all," Kitchens said.
Add to this the fact that Green has the power to alter Melton's probation at will, and you've got a very effective watchdog over the mayoral maverick.
"Sure, the judge can change the condition of a bond
so long as the circumstances warrant it. If the defendant has a drinking problem, then the judge can say 'Well, you can't drink any alcohol.' Now maybe a judge might not know about the drinking problem when the person was first put on bond, but as things come to the judge's attention, the judge can change it," Kitchens said.
Melton's misdemeanor probation will likely not require occasional drug or alcohol testing at the outset, Kirksey said, so don't bother cultivating droll images of the mayor submitting urine samples just yet.
"I don't see that being a condition of a misdemeanor bond, unless the misdemeanor is related to a drug offense, and this was a non-drug offense," Kirksey said.
However, in her Oct. 2 statement to attorneys in the Melton trials, Green said: "While the court did not require that the Defendants in this case submit to alcohol and/or drug testing, house arrest and/or mental evaluations, the court
will not hesitate to consider whether the Defendants' conduct warrants the imposition of these additional monitoring procedures."
Y'all, in the rush to read Brian's exclusive with Stambolieh, don't miss this post-trial wrapup by Adam. It has some good stuff in it you haven't seen.
Good story Adam. You cleared up a few questions that I had about Melton. A friend of mine made a very good analogy of Meltons troubles the other day.
He said that Melton dodging the felong conviction was like walking outside when it first begins to rain. If you're quick, you may not get wet. However if you are faced with a sudden downpour (the DA's multiple charges), you are probably going to get wet even if just a little.
Melton has dodged the sprinkle, but the storm is still ahead. If he would have been a little more truthful then mayby this would not be so intense.