Defense rests in federal trial of Miss. mayor

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The defense rested Wednesday in the federal trial of Jackson Mayor Frank Melton, accused of leading a sledgehammer assault on a duplex that he wanted torn down because he believed it was a crack house.

Melton, 59, and his police bodyguard, Michael Recio, 39, are each charged with three federal felonies for leading a group of young men to use sticks and hammers to damage the home in August 2006.

Each is accused of violating the civil rights of the duplex's owner and tenant, doing so under what is known as "the color of law" - meaning the alleged crime was committed while they were acting in their official capacities - and committing a crime of violence while in possession of a firearm. Melton would be forced from office if convicted of a felony under state law and both men face up to 25 years in prison, though maximum federal sentences are rarely imposed.

Melton says the duplex in a poor Jackson neighborhood was a haven for illegal activity and that he was only trying to help the community. The tough-talking former television executive was elected by a landslide in 2005 after promising to clean up Mississippi's largest city and run "thugs" out of town.

But soon after Melton was elected, state authorities began to believe his unorthodox tactics - participating in police checkpoints and knocking on doors at seedy motels - were going too far.

Prosecutors say he was drunk on scotch the night of the vigilante raid and had no legal authority to damage the house. Melton, Recio and another former bodyguard, Marcus Wright, were acquitted in April 2007 of state charges related to the duplex attack after convincing the jury that Melton did not act with malicious intent and was just trying to fight crime.

This time, however, federal prosecutors persuaded Wright to take a deal and testify against his former boss. And unlike in the state trial, prosecutors were successful in limiting testimony about illegal activity at the home. "We're not going to put the house on trial," U.S. District Judge Daniel Jordan III said. Melton and Recio did not testify.

The defense's last witness was Jackson city council member Kenneth Stokes, who said he told Melton on at least two occasions before the raid that drugs were a problem at the house. Prosecutor Mark Blumberg wanted to prevent Stokes from taking the stand because others - including two witnesses who were led into court in shackles - had already testified about crack use and sales at the house. Melton's attorney John Reeves convinced the judge, however, to allow limited testimony. "Mr. Stokes is the only witness so far that doesn't have a conviction," Reeves said Stokes testified outside the presence of the jury that he was so concerned by illegal activity at the home that he put it on the council agenda. Still, he said, nothing was done about the problem. But the only thing the jury was allowed to hear was that Stokes told Melton twice that he was concerned about illegal drugs at the duplex.

Earlier in the day, Christopher Walker, 26, who has been convicted of drug trafficking and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, said crack and others drugs were sold and used at the home. Under cross examination, Walker acknowledged that he had lived with the mayor at one time and said the two were close.

Melton has taken numerous young men, many with criminal backgrounds, into his home in a gated community over the years. Blumberg said Walker met with Melton's attorney before court Wednesday and decided: "Because I feel friendly with Frank Melton, I'll stick to the story I promised to give." "No, sir," Walker responded. Walker said he worked with Melton as a confidential informant while Melton was head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, the state's drug agency.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)