Tearin' Up Virden: The Melton Trial | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Tearin' Up Virden: The Melton Trial

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It began while they were watching the newest version of "Walking Tall" starring the Rock, witness Lawrence Cooper Jr. said during the first day of testimony in the felony trial of Mayor Frank Melton and police detectives Michael Recio and Marcus Wright. Cooper, who testified that he was a frequent visitor to Evans Welch's rental home at 1305 Ridgeway Street, said that the two men were watching television the night of Aug. 26, 2006, when they heard a voice outside call "the folks is coming," with "folks" referring to police.

Welch went to the front door to look out as police lights cast shadows inside the duplex, Cooper said. Next, he heard a loud banging from the locked back door, and then a short African-American man with a machine gun and a flashlight burst into the living room, shouting, "What the f*ck are you doing here?" He did not identify himself as a police officer or present a search warrant, Cooper said.

"Is that man in the courtroom today?" asked Senior Assistant DA Stanley Alexander.

"That man on the end," Cooper replied, pointing his finger at Wright. He went on to identify Melton and Recio, as well.

By the end of Tuesday, multiple eye witnesses had identified the three defendants, describing how Melton cut his hand while smashing in windows with a "Walking Tall" stick. They spoke of young men filing off the Mobile Command Center to take sledgehammers to the Ridgeway duplex, one of them saying, "Look at what Frank is doing. We're Wood Street tearin' up Virden. We're tearin' sh*t up."

There were victories for the defense team, however. They prevented prosecutors from asking questions about Melton's alleged intoxication. Also, prosecutors dropped one of the most serious charges in the indictment—causing or directing a minor to commit a felony—meaning that Melton and Wright now face four counts, while Recio faces three.

Still, when the prosecution rested late Tuesday afternoon, there was no doubt that Melton et al. had actually demolished the duplex. Now, defense lawyers were left with one narrow argument, that smashing up the duplex was not a crime because the defendants had no "evil intent" when they did it.

'Folks Is Coming'
During opening statements Tuesday morning, attorneys for each defendant made that case repeatedly. Former Mayor Dale Danks, who is an attorney for Melton, said that prosecutors had to prove that the defendants had acted with malice for them to be guilty of malicious mischief. "Every charge in these indictments requires this essential element," Danks said. "The prosecution cannot prove to you malice or evil intent, because quite simple, there was none."

Danks said that only those living in and around the duplex had "evil intent," which he would prove by calling paid informants and former drug addicts who would describe firsthand "a somewhat sophisticated operation" at Ridgeway. Defense lawyers expected to call their witnesses on Wednesday.

Tuesday was the prosecution's day, however, and their witnesses cast doubt on the contention that the duplex was a drug house.

While Cooper was on the stand, Alexander asked if Welch ran to the bathroom to flush drugs down the toilet when he heard the police warning. "No," Cooper replied. "There wasn't nothing to flush." He also testified that the police never even searched the duplex for drugs or brought drug-sniffing dogs.

Instead, he said that Melton was violent and abusive. "Don't let me catch you over here again. If I catch you over here again, I'm throwing your ass in jail," Cooper said Melton had warned him.

He said that Melton used a large stick to smash in four windows on the side and two in front, cutting his hand, and that Melton then motioned to the youth filing out of the MCC and ordered them inside the duplex with sledgehammers. One of the youths said, "We're Wood Street in here tearing up the Virden Addition," Cooper said.

After the first visit, Welch and Cooper went back inside to salvage "stuff that wasn't tore up." When Melton et al. returned, Cooper said Melton's hand was bandaged and they had "three or four" more young men to help them smash the house further. He said that Recio helped tear down the front wall of the house. Recio said, "I'll show you how to do it," Cooper testified.

On cross-examination, Danks asked how Cooper is employed. Cooper said he is a self-employed mechanic.

Danks asked how he got his business, and Cooper said it was by word of mouth. He acknowledged that he did not have a shop, saying that he worked in his yard.

Cooper admitted that he had seen crack in the house and that he knew the house had a "reputation" as being a crack house. He had never seen Tammy Callahan, who will testify for the defense, in the house. He said that he had seen next-door neighbor Yolanda Allen in the house, "but she doesn't hang out." He said that he had never been arrested, and he insisted that he had never seen the crack pipe police say they took from Welch that night.

Robert Smith, who is an attorney for Wright, tried to get Cooper to admit that residents shouted "the folks are coming" to warn drug dealers, but objections from the prosecution ended that line of questioning.

On redirect, Alexander asked Cooper to show his hands to the jury. "What's that on your hands?" he asked. Cooper said it was oil. "Why do you have oil on your hands?" Alexander asked. It was from working on cars, Cooper replied. "Are you a certified mechanic?" Alexander asked.

"Certified enough for people in the neighborhood," Cooper answered, eliciting laughter from the audience.

"Even if not for him?" Alexander added, pointing toward Danks.

Cooper said that although he had seen other raids before Aug. 26, it was "totally different" than other nights.

Alexander then asked how close Cooper was standing to Melton. When Cooper said it was about four feet, Alexander asked him if he had smelled anything on Melton's breath.

The defense immediately objected and called for a mistrial. Webster granted the objection, warning Alexander that his question was "inappropriate, at least for redirect," but refused to grant a mistrial.

'He Was Very Rude'
Prosecutors also called Jennifer Sutton, who owns the duplex. She works as a housekeeper at a retirement home in Ridgeland and has two children. She purchased the duplex at 1305 Ridgeway in 2004 for $25,000, along with adjacent properties. Welch already lived there when she bought the duplex, she said, and his mother paid rent of $160 a month.

Sutton testified that no one from the city or the police department had ever told her there was a problem with drugs at the duplex, which she can see from her home. The night of Aug. 26, 2006, she heard there was trouble at her property but was "afraid" to investigate herself. The next day, she took photographs of the damage, which prosecutors showed members of the jury. Sutton did not go into the duplex, she said, because it was "full of debris and broken glass, and there were exposed wires." She testified that she had to call Entergy to have them turn off the power.

Perhaps the most important part of Sutton's testimony was her description of a Melton phone call on Sept. 6, 2006. In that call, he offered to repair her property using city contractors, Sutton said. She hung up on him, however, "because he was very rude to me."

Sutton called the DA's office on the advice of Virden Addition Neighborhood Association President Jimmie Robinson.

'We're Wood Street'
Prosecutors also called Evans Welch's mother Louvenia Welch, who testified that despite Danks' suggestion that Melton had ordered Evans Welch home to his parents, Melton had never called her or offered her any assistance. She acknowledged under cross-examination that she was worried about the company her son kept.

Capt. Bobby Funchess with the Sheriff's Department described his investigation of the crime scene on Sept. 6, 2006. He described the duplex as "badly ransacked, destroyed."

Yolanda Allen, who lives at 1309 Ridgeway Street, provided eye-witness testimony that corroborated Cooper's account. She identified all three defendants, and testified that Melton had smashed in windows with a "big stick." She said "kids" who came off the MCC had taken sledgehammers to the duplex, and one of the young men said: "Look at what Frank has us doing. We're Wood Street tearin' up Virden. We're tearin' sh*t up."

Under questioning from Melton attorney Merrida Coxwell Jr., Allen acknowledged that she had seen a police raid on the duplex two weeks before Aug. 26, but she could not remember any others in the previous year.

She sparred with Coxwell over the significance of the phrase "folks are coming."

"Is that what they yell so drug dealers can run?" Coxwell asked.

"I don't know about no drug dealers," she replied. On redirect, Alexander asked if she had ever seen Welch deal drugs, and she said no.

'I'll Bust These Goddamn Windows'
The final witness in the morning was Anthony Richardson, who also lives near Ridgeway. Richardson identified all three defendants as being at the duplex the night of Aug. 26. He said that he saw Melton smash windows in the duplex, and that two youths got off the MCC with sledgehammers.

He said Wright had ordered him to go home as he observed the events. "I said I was a grown man," Richardson testified. "He can't tell me to go home."

On cross-examination, Danks asked about Richardson's drinking habits, asking him to confirm that he had had alcohol the morning of the Ridgeway incident. Danks asked Richardson several times if he'd had any alcohol before testifying. "No sir," Richardson replied, "but after this I probably will."

In the afternoon, Christopher Dishmon testified about photographs he took which placed defendants at the scene. He admitted that Dennis Sweet, who is representing Sutton in a civil suit, paid him $3,000 for the photos, but he said they were an accurate record of what had happened that night.

On cross-examination, Wright attorney Robert Smith asked Dishmon about drug activity at the duplex. "There's a difference between a crack house and drug haven," Dishmon said, but he acknowledged that there was drug activity "24/7" at the duplex.

Prosecutors asked Dishmon if he had meant the duplex or the entire area, and he said that the whole street was overrun with drugs. He said such activity had not diminished after Melton et al. smashed the duplex.

Prosecutors also called Christy Allen, another neighbor who confirmed that the defendants had demolished the duplex. She said that the only "real" police car left after the officer got into an argument with one of the men on the MCC. She also testified, outside the presence of the jury, that Melton had threatened a car parked next near the duplex. "Whoever's car this is, move it, or I'll bust these goddamn windows," she testified that Melton said.

The defense was set to present its case Wednesday as the JFP went to press.

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