Defense More Difficult This Time | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Defense More Difficult This Time

Frank Melton is headed back to court.

Frank Melton is headed back to court. Photo by Jaro Vacek

Jackson Mayor Frank Melton was back in court July 16 for the Aug. 26, 2006, destruction of a duplex on Ridgeway Street—an incident first reported by the Jackson Free Press on Sept. 1, 2006. Melton and his two police officer bodyguards, Michael Recio and Marcus Wright—both currently on administrative leave—now face federal charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the house's owner Jennifer Sutton and occupant/renter Evans Welch.

The indictment alleges that Melton, Recio and Wright brought several young men—some of them minors—to the home at gunpoint; that Wright ordered Welch out of the home; and that Melton ordered the young men to "damage and destroy the home" with sledgehammers, while Melton used a large stick to break out the windows.

The indictment also accuses the three of returning to the home a second time that same night and ordering the young men to further destroy the home, and that Melton, Wright and Recio carried firearms while committing the crimes. Witnesses have said that Melton cut his hand on broken windows that night.

The two civil rights violations carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison each, while the third count against all three—using a firearm during a violent crime—could land them each at least an extra five years.

The charge joins a growing pile of past indictments lodged at Melton since he took office as mayor. The state indicted Melton on gun charges for carrying a firearm into a gun-restricted zone. Melton pled to a reduced misdemeanor charge in that trial.

Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson then took the Ridgeway Street case before a grand jury, which indicted the mayor and his bodyguards on several conspiracy charges including conspiracy to commit burglary and directing a minor to commit a felony. The jury—composed of Hinds County residents all familiar with the mayor—found him not guilty after Melton's defense attorneys convinced presiding Judge Joe Webster to allow the defense team to frame the trial as a battle between Melton et al and a "crack house," even though no drugs were found that night. Defense lawyers effectively convinced a jury that the three did not have malicious—or "evilԗintent even if they did have youth destroy the home, the TV and the toilet and pour paint all over the interior.

Peterson told the JFP after the trial that Webster allowed the defense to argue that the case was about "evil intent," while tossing evidence proving that intent, such as testimony alleging Melton was drunk that night or his threat to destroy a car parked near the Ridgeway Street home at the time of the incident.

The federal case against Melton differs from the first one, however. For one thing, the charges are completely different—centering on violating the Fourth and 14th Amendments.

In the federal case, the court can pull jurors from more than a dozen surrounding counties, many from areas either indifferent to the Jackson mayor or perhaps disapproving of his antics. It is unlikely that any jurors will have voted for Melton.

Secondly, federal attorneys have more resources at their disposal. Unlike the understaffed Hinds County DA's office, the U.S. Department of Justice can dedicate more investigators, critical staff and lawyers to a case. Those attorneys, led by Civil Rights Deputy Chief Mark Blumberg and trial attorney Patricia Sumner, also do not suffer the political disadvantage of prosecuting a popular media figure. Melton pushed a successful opponent—who was one of his bodyguards' attorneys—against Peterson after her failure to convict him last year. Today the lawyers of both Recio and Wright work in the Hinds County DA's office as DA and assistant DA, and are unlikely to ever take on cases against either of the two, or Melton, for reasons of conflicting interests.

Federal prosecutors also have the advantage in terms of the legal definition of the crime. The argument that the prosecution had to prove malicious intent was a birthday cake directly from Webster to Melton last year, but the new guys won't have to climb that mountain, said Mississippi College School of Law professor Matt Steffey.

"There will be no similar gift to the defense in this case. All the prosecution is going to have to prove was that the defendants conspired to search and seize property without a warrant … which is required by the Fourth Amendment," Steffey said.

Steffey added that there is also the tactical advantage of knowing how the last prosecution panned out and where it went wrong.

"Any time you try a case more than once, whether it's a mistrial or something else, your chances of a conviction go up," Steffey said. "The prosecutors can go back over every minute of the last trial and think at what point did the last prosecution's case fall apart. They can say this time, 'well, we don't have to prove malicious intent with our conspiracy charge,' for starters, and I think in this case that is a tremendous advantage. I think the smart money is on the prosecution, in general, but it's in the U.S. attorneys' office in particular, and when you add that they get to learn from the mistakes of the first trial the possibility moves strongly into their favor."

It is, in essence, the terms of success as defined between a fly and a fly-swatter: The fly, in order to win, must win every time—the swatter need win only once. It is precisely why Steffey considers this second trial an affront to the Constitution.

"I think that the prosecutions of cases like this should be reserved for incidences like the Rodney King case, where you really feel the state system broke down, not where 12 people simply didn't feel the defendant committed a crime," Steffey said.

For his part, Melton talked a lot to the media in the last week about how he wasn't going to stop "fighting crime."

"I will be derned if your parents lose the value of their homes, because of drug houses in the neighborhood," he said at the Jackson Music Awards Monday. He provided no crime-fighting specifics, however.

Crime has increased since Melton took office in 2005.

[Update: Year corrected in story lede.]

Previous Comments

ID
132203
Comment

I haven't had time to carefully read the article yet, Adam. Surely, it's as good as the rest have been. Might I say that however difficult the defense might be this time, those federal lawyers are capable of being beaten just as any other lawyers are. Once Frank reads the indictment, understands the indictment, learns the general law and finds the exceptions or loopholes to the charges he will be just fine. I agree with professor Steffey's take on the case. As to the talent and resources of the federal government that's true, but good lawyers do overcome all of that occasionally. And most of all, those same resources can be use to hurt the government as well. If Frank can come up with the finacial resources to hire good attorneys with great legal minds and gladiator-like drive, determination and persistence, he could beat those federal boys and girls. The bigger they are the harder they fall.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-07-18T09:43:47-06:00
ID
132204
Comment

By the way, Adam; Ray Carter told me he's gotta do that Flowers' case again in Belzoni in September unless the death penalty is dropped before then. How much love does the community (you know what part I'm talking about) have for him over there? Does he need bodyguards just to do his job as the law, rules and justice allow? Let me know if you hear anything about him. He's a good friend of mines.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-07-18T09:56:04-06:00
ID
132206
Comment

I created a group on Facebook called "convict Frank Melton for violating citizens civil rights. If anybody have a facebook account and wanna join you are welcome.

Author
NewJackson
Date
2008-07-18T10:13:15-06:00
ID
132239
Comment

Adam, I meant in Winona, Mississippi.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-07-19T18:45:44-06:00
ID
132609
Comment

What's happening in this case? I've been out of town a couple of weeks and am trying to catch up.

Author
FriendsofJackson
Date
2008-07-30T07:11:49-06:00
ID
132610
Comment

Not a ton so far. We'll be posting a new story about it later today.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2008-07-30T08:02:29-06:00

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