Judge: Evidence in case not coerced

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 31, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — Mayor Frank Melton’s defense has presented no concrete evidence to support allegations that prosecutors used embarrassing information to force their star witness to testify against him in a federal civil rights trial, a judge said Friday.

Melton and his former police bodyguard are scheduled to stand trial Monday on civil rights violations in the sledgehammer destruction of a suspected crack house.

During a pretrial hearing Friday, attorneys on both sides argued about whether the judge should allow testimony about an unsubstantiated allegation that its star witness, Marcus Wright, had a tryst with a male prostitute.

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Wright was one of Melton’s two bodyguards and was originally charged along with the mayor for the destruction of a duplex in 2006. He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and agreed to testify against his former boss.

Defense attorneys had claimed the government used the allegation about the prostitute to coerce Wright to turn on the others. The allegation by the prostitute was uncovered by the defense team in a Jackson Police Department internal affairs file during an investigation of another officer.

Mark Blumberg, a U.S. Justice Department prosecutor, said there’s “not a shred” of evidence the government knew about the allegation before Wright’s plea agreement was reached Oct. 7, or used it against him.

“I agree with that,” said U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III.

Still, Jordan said he would rule later on the scope of cross examination he’ll allow about the issue when Wright takes the stand.

The prostitute was not mentioned specifically in court because the judge has sealed information related to the allegation and ordered attorneys not to discuss the details.

However, even the judge conceded the matter discussed in the hearing had been reported in the media and “everybody in the room knows what we’re talking about.”

Earlier in the day, the other defendant in the case, Michael Recio, a Jackson police officer and Melton’s other former bodyguard, testified that he asked Wright, a week after Wright pleaded guilty, if he took the deal because of “that situation.”

“You talking about that lying boy?” Wright allegedly responded.

Recio said Wright then told him: “If I plead to this, they won’t go any further with this.”

Wright’s attorney, John Collette, said “emphatically, without exception” the allegations about the male prostitute were not used against his client.

Instead, Collette said, they are being used by the defense as “a way to dirty up my client.”

Wright briefly took the stand and said the government never threatened him.

“To what extent did those allegations factor into you decision to plead guilty?” the judge asked.

“None whatsoever,” Wright said.

Melton and Recio face maximum sentences of 25 years in prison if convicted. A gag order in the case prevents those involved from commenting.

Melton, a former television executive and one-time head of the state narcotics agency, was elected in 2005 on a promise to clean up crime in Mississippi’s largest city. He soon ran into trouble with the law for his unorthodox techniques.

He has not denied participating in the destruction of the duplex apartment in a poor neighborhood. He claims the home was a haven for prostitution and drug distribution. He was acquitted of state charges related to the same incident.