Judge: Melton can’t mention crime fighting history

Published 9:22 am Thursday, November 6, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — Jackson Mayor Frank Melton has long fancied himself a crime fighter — he targeted drug dealers as a television executive and later as head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

So it’s no surprise that Melton wants to tell a jury about his exploits before they decide whether he broke the law himself by damaging an alleged crack house.

The problem: A federal judge won’t let him.

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Melton and his former police bodyguard Michael Recio face three felony charges for allegedly leading a group of young men in the sledgehammer bashing of a duplex apartment in August 2006. The trial begins Nov. 12.

Melton had hoped to use his crime-fighting past to convince the jury of his good intentions in trying to rid the community of what he described as a drug den. A similar strategy was successful last year when Melton and two bodyguards were acquitted of state charges related to the same incident.

The federal prosecutors don’t want a repeat. They asked a judge in the federal case to prohibit Melton from discussing any previous good deeds or efforts to fight crime. U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III agreed.

The judge’s ruling is a victory for federal prosecutors, who want to portray Melton as an out-of-control mayor who abused his power. Melton, on the other hand, wants to remind the jury that he was elected on a pledge to run criminals out of the capital city and was trying to keep the promise.

Evidence that “Melton had a reputation for fighting crime or removing dilapidated property is simply irrelevant,” according to a ruling Tuesday by Jordan. He won’t allow Melton to tell the jury about his acquittal on state charges either.

A prior acquittal “is not relevant because it does not prove innocence but rather merely indicates the prior prosecution failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt at least one element of the crime,” Jordan ruled.

The judge has not said whether he’ll let Melton introduce evidence that the duplex was a crack house. Prosecutors are fighting to keep that information out of court — testimony that the home was a center for narcotics use and distribution could sway jurors in Melton’s favor. Crime has long been a problem in Mississippi’s largest city.

A gag order prohibits attorneys on both sides from discussing the case.

Melton, Recio and another of the mayor’s bodyguards were acquitted on the state charges after convincing a jury the mayor had no malicious intent when damaging the home.

This time, however, the second bodyguard, Marcus Wright, struck a deal with federal prosecutors and plans to testify against his old boss.