On the first day I showed up to cover the federal trial of Mayor Frank Melton and his ex-bodyguard Michael Recio in downtown Jackson, the mayor sidled up to me with that teasing look he often gets when he sees me face-to-face.
"Did he tell you what I told him to tell you Friday?" Melton asked me, pointing to Jackson Free Press reporter Ward Schaefer.
"No, I just got back from D.C.," I answered. "What did you tell him to tell me?"
At this point, Melton was standing on the steps up against the concrete half wall that I was sitting on. He had both hands flat on its wide top, near chest level for him. He looked much smaller and weaker than he did when I started covering his mayoral campaign four years ago, as if he is shrinking in his blue suit. He is easy to feel sorry for these days.
He snickered and answered, "I told him to tell you I still love you anyway."
I laughed. "You do, huh?" I shook my head at him, laughing a little as I always do to his antics. I know that he probably thinks a congenial relationship with his most vocal opponent will bring me around to him, as it has many people who started out critical of him. At best, perhaps it will muddy the waters, throw me off course, not to mention confuse and puzzle those who hear us banter.
Or maybe he actually likes being challenged, even in a joking way. It hasn't happened much to him over the years by the yes-people around him and in the media.
Regardless, this is vintage Melton: downplaying the seriousness of his current situation and trying to turn on his charm to get him through a rough patch.
Indeed, it always has.
The Way I'd Vote
On the first night of jury deliberations, Wednesday, Feb. 18, Melton stuck his tongue out at me. I preferred to sit two or three pews behind him on the left side of the courtroom instead of in the middle of all the media on the right side.
Judge Dan Jordan had brought the jury back in after about an hour of deliberations after they got the case, and told them they could leave until the next morning. When the judge told jurors not to read any newspapers overnight, Melton swung his head around, grinned and stuck his tongue out at me.
I smiled my usual Melton half-smile and shook my head at him like he was a kid who doesn't know how to behave.
I caught myself feeling pangs of sympathy for Melton as his trial started and stopped, as jury deliberations dragged out, punctuated by dramatic episodes and surprises that I've taken to calling "Meltonian."
It didn't helped that, nearly every time he saw me, Melton came over and talked to me, or called me to him, to the clear chagrin of his attorney John Reeves, co-defendant Recio (who just stares blankly at me), and his supporters in the audience, who probably think I'm evil incarnate for reporting so heavily and honestly on their hero.
Often the mayor called me up to the half-wall behind him and the defense table. The most intense time was Friday, Feb. 20, at the end of a long day of jury deliberations, right after Jordan released the jury. The courtroom was crowded, and Melton motioned to me as the jury exited.
He talked about being stressed. About how he wouldn't wish such a trial ordeal on anyone. How waiting to hear the jury's decision on his fate was hell.
"But I know which way you'd vote," he said, snickering the way he does and flicking his right thumb upward two times quickly. "Send him away."
I gave him the raised-eyebrows-smile I do when I can't honestly disagree with what he just said.
"Live and learn," he said, shaking his head. "Live and learn."
No doubt, Melton was making it hard not to pity him at that moment. Were I under Melton's spell, I clearly would go the way of an attorney who expounded at length in the courtroomeven though he wasn't askedwhile the jury deliberated this Monday that even though Melton clearly violated the law, he didn't mean harm in his "heart of hearts." Or I would side with the spouse of a media figure who has known "Frank" a long time and wants to see him acquitted.
I don't agree with either of them: None of us can know what's in Melton's "heart of hearts," and even though he turns his charm on heavy around me, I do not believe he is above the law. He made his choices, and he should pay for them. I don't know that I believe he has "lived and learned." He has given me no reason to. He has shown no remorse for his transgressions.
As Melton talked to me in front of God and the courtroom, his sister-in-law called to him, but he kept talking to me, alternating between looking tragic and snickering. I asked him about his dog Abby, the pooch that looked so vicious in all our ride-a-long photos, the one that scared the bejeezus out of Batman Donelson's mama, when the mayor and his submachine-gun-toting bodyguards stalked up on her porch in 2006 like a bunch of toy superheroes the Sunday after a Hinds County jury acquitted the Donelson brothers of murder.
Abby has slowed down, Melton said: "She's getting old." She sleeps a lot. And he doesn't know what he'll do when he has to let her go some day.
This was a heart-wrenching scene in many ways, and pets are my weaknessAbby and I were buds back in 2006but any sympathy pangs I felt for Melton hit the emotional force field I put up long ago with the city's provocative mayora man I perhaps have grown to know better than any other journalist even has tried to know him. I've dared to try to look at all facets of him at once: his funny side, his serious side, his smart-aleck side, his "benevolent" side, his very troubled side, his seemingly narcissistic side, his possible criminal side. And I've never hesitated to question himto his face and in printand I've never misrepresented my motives to him.
I'm not one of his, and I never can be. I'm not out to be his friend or his defender, or his executioner. I want to understand him, though. I want to figure out what put someone like him in this position to keep it from happening again in our city. I want to continue being the person willing to speak the hard truth he doesn't want to hear. And I want to stop him from doing harm, to himself and others, and especially the young black men of the city. That includes those he claims as "his," as well as those declared enemies that he and his "kids" target, even if they have committed lesser crimes than those riding Melton's bus.
The hardest part of the trial for me was seeing both sides bring out two of the young men who have lived in Melton's home, one to try to help the prosecution and the other the defense.
If I felt deep compassion for anyone involved in this trial, it was Christopher Walker and Michael Taylor, two young men cast out by absentee fathers, raised in a world that wouldn't recognize their potential (and in Walker's case, I believe, brilliance), and then being drawn into Frank Melton's chess game between the young men he calls his and the ones they help him target.
As he testified for the prosecution, treated as a hostile witness after he tried to clam up with a man who says he loves him sitting feet away, Taylor simply broke my heart. He was only 16 when Melton was riding him around on the Mobile Command Center, asking him to help tear down houses with a sledgehammer without authority, and whatever else. He haltingly told the jury that Melton was like a "father figure" to him and to other young men who have lived with Melton.
In his closing statement, Blumberg got it exactly right when he said: "Michael Taylor may be one of the most tragic figures in this whole event ... . [H]ere's a young man who clearly worshiped defendant Melton. Called him Pops. Looked up to him as a father figure. Gave him money for his lawyers. Lived with him when his own life was trouble.
"Melton took advantage of that. He knew these young men would do whatever it was that he asked. Testimony is that he stood out there and beckoned them, 'Tear it up.' And they did," Blumberg added.
No doubt, both Walker and Taylor have been in serious troubleinvolving guns, drugs and violenceand they need help, but not the kind with Meltonian strings attached.
For Walker's part, he told me in a long, emotional interview last year that he believed Melton had used him and then jilted him: When Melton needed him to testify against Albert Donelson, he gave him anything he wanted. Later, the mayor cut him loose.
Now, implications are that Melton has tried to make up with Walker, even as he again sits in a jail in Louisiana. The defense called Walkerwho was brought to the courthouse in a prison jumpsuit and shackles, then changed into a JSU running suitto testify he did ecstasy and smoked pot at 1305 Ridgeway St. He also told the court that he knew someone sold crack in the house and had told Meltona way to help attorney Reeves nullify the jury with images of crackhouses and dope boys dancing in their heads.
It's hard to know whether Walker was telling the truth; he told me he has lied in the past to please Melton, agreeing to tell a grand jury that he answered the cell phone when Donelson called his brother Terrell from prison to order a murder. Thus, he was Melton's star witnessfed, clothed and housed wellat least until then-District Attorney Faye Peterson dropped him as a witness in that case because evidence suggested that all of Melton's largesse might have induced him to lie to the grand jury.
Then there was that little PR stunt that Walker and Melton pulled on Peterson, whom Melton targeted after she started questioning his warrant-less "crime-fighting" strategies. Melton held a press conference and put Walker in front of the cameras to allege that Peterson had "f*cked Jimmy Jam." Melton told me later: "We put it out there, didn't we?" He also told me that another attorney in town could confirm serious allegations he was making about Peterson; the attorney told me she had no clue what he was talking about.
Meantime, in the courtroom last week, I was rather amazed when Reeves read a reference to the Jimmy Jam incident in my paper and asked me what happened. It seems he didn't know that one of his witnesses had defamed the former DA. To me, that would seem to speak to his credibility to vouch for Melton in this case. But, hey, this isn't "Law and Order," where things tend to make a whole lot more sense.
I've been wrong beforelike when missiles didn't pop out of the ground next to the Pentagon and shoot down the terrorists on 9/11but I'd have guessed that in a TV courtroom drama, the defendant would be in deep muck when the judge learned he tried to serve a subpoena on a potential witness, scaring his elderly parents to death as Melton did on the eve of the first day of testimony. (I call that intimidation.) I'd also have guessed that a troubled young man like Walker would not have passed muster as a witness for the defense.
Indeed, Walker almost wiggled out of doing his duty for Melton by getting his attorney Thomas Powell to contact prosecutor Mark Blumberg the day before testifying to tell him he wanted to talk to him. But, according to a transcript of a fascinating bench conference during Walker's testimony, Reeves talked to Walker before he could meet with Blumberg the next morning. Afterward, Blumberg said Walker told him, "Because I feel friendly toward Frank Melton, I'll just stay with the story I promised to give." Blumberg won the move to ask Walker about it in open court, in order to challenge his credibility, but Walker then denied saying it.
Blumberg also established in cross-examination of Walker that when Melton was head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, he had gotten Walker to confess on tape to crimes that Melton never had him investigated for: "You admitted to participating in robberies and murder and watching out for other people committing murder. You remember that?"
"Yes, sir," Walker answered.
Reading over that transcript, which could be used later against Walker, reminded me of him talking about being used, and then cast out, by Melton. He's back, but for how long?
It's too bad Reeves got to him before he spoke to Blumberg. It could have been quite revealing.
And We Start Again
I prayed for a conviction every day during the trial, several times. I believe Melton has given us no choice. It seems clear that if he does not go to jail at some point, if he's not held truly accountable for his actions, he will keep spreading poison even if he thinks it's his own cynical style of "grace and benevolence," his way of saving the world. Not a great way to mentor, either.
If he's not in jail, those around him will push him to run for office again, pushing the buttons of a weakened, sick man who told me back in 2006 in a moment of quiet candor that he really disliked being mayor. Stephanie Parker-Weaver assured me outside the courtroom that his health is good, and he can handle being on trial and running for that office he doesn't like. I don't believe her, with due respect.
I believe my staff and I and othersespecially former District Attorney Peterson, who sacrificed her public career to do what was right, and Attorney General Jim Hood, the only state official to look the real Melton in the face and say "stop itԗhave kept him from doing more serious harm. He may have been acquitted in state court, but he was also exposed for being a fraud when it came to crime-fighting, and his nighttime joyride-raids were halted. And I have no doubt in my mind that the alcoholic I accompanied on boisterous juveniles forays into the night in 2006 would have gotten someone, or himself, or one of his bodyguards, killed had a group of us followed the lead of so many for so long and refused to do our jobs because it was just ole "Frank" and oh, so "likable."
When the feds picked up our thread in 2007, the hot spotlight stayed on Frank Melton, and it slowly-but-steadily melted the illusion that he and others had built for him over the years. And he burned through his political capital.
What was left was a sad man, seemingly without a lot of friends or close familyreal friends wouldn't have let him go this far, and wouldn't have shrouded his particular madness in an insulting paternalismstanding in a courtroom turning his pockets inside out for me, to show me he still has holes in his suit pockets like he did back in 2006 as then-bodyguard Marcus Wright chased Abby around his Olympic pool-sized bedroom.
After the judge announced that the jury was hopelessly deadlocked Tuesday, you could hear near-dead silence in the courtroom. No cheering, no jeering. If it was if everyone there knew this isn't over, even if Melton did dodge this bullet.
As Melton left the courthouse after the judge warning him not to talk about the case, Reeves hovered around him as if to be sure he didn't. I didn't crowd up near him, but went over and stood near his black Chrysler 300M as it tried to back out, its blackened window shrouding Melton. As if on cue, I saw the window go down as he passed me.
"Hey, Donna," Melton said, smiling a little unsteadily.
I returned my half-Melton-smile as the window went back up, and the car drove away.
Read more about the Melton trial at meltonblog.com and @jxnfreepress on Twitter.
Great depiction of the events Donna and you really described Frank well. Good article!!!
1 typo(Chrysler 300M as he it tried )
Great article, i have sympathy for melton, but i have even more sympathy for evans welch and jennifer sutton, so i say retry him and hopefully we could get all twelve to vot guilty.
Thanks, classy. I actually found two typos in print version; fixing both now. Apologies: We had a quick turnaround after the non-verdict!
Where does this leave Marcus Wright? He's admitted his guilt to some of the charges and implicated both Melton and Recio in some of them, and more. Now, he stands to be punished while Melton and Recio could very well go free. It just ain't right, I say, it just ain't right!
Melton is a whole wilderness, and you could wonder around in that wilderness for years. I'm not being facetious--the man is an enigma wrapped in an ego smothered in lies with a cherry on top. It is Jackson's misfortune that his outlandish personality has played out on the city stage for the last four years, with the consequences you would expect if Godzilla went on a bender. It hardly matters what's in Godzilla's heart.
Great profile, Donna, and props to Ward and the rest of the team. Get some R&R, because it won't be long before it all. starts. again.
- Brian C Johnson
Yep, there is a beach in my near future, with any luck. I'm as exhausted as I've ever been. This trial was sheer psychological exhaustion.
If I were a woman and Melton told me he loves me, that would give me the creeps, even if it's not in a romantic way.
- golden eagle
You were wrong "like when missiles didn't pop out of the ground next to the Pentagon and shoot down the terrorists on 9/11"?
You can't say that didn't happen. If the Pentagon was equipped with anti-aircraft missiles, they could have been heat-seeking missiles designed to take out the engines. Typically, you take out the engine of a military aircraft and it falls from the sky like a rock. But commercial airliners are different. By the time the plane turned, it was only two miles from the Pentagon and could feasibly have drifted the rest of the way without engines. The flight pattern for that last 2 miles doesn't preclude that its engines were out, based on data from other flights by identical planes that have lost both engines mid-flight.
Yeah, you guessed it ... I slept in a Holiday Inn Express last night.
Tee, hee, Tony. ;-)
Seriously though, a 757 travelling at cruising speed has a glide ratio of 11:1, so it could glide for 2 miles even if it was only 900 feet off the ground when it got hit. Hit-To-Kill is still a fairly new concept, so whatever intercept munitions were involved in the incident (if indeed you are not wrong about them popping up) were probably proximity effect. A little proximity shrapnel will take out the engines and pepper the fuselage, but it's not likely to bring down the plane.
Maybe this information will help salvage your faith in your infalibility.
I believe you. ;-)
As I said, the trial was about shattering my illusions. Sounds like I picked the perfect analogy!