Witness’ claim challenged in Melton trial

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 12, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — Being the bodyguard for the mayor of Mississippi’s largest city was a plum assignment for protector turned government witness Marcus Wright — most of the time.

‘‘He could still be a difficult boss,’’ Wright told a federal jury Wednesday.

Wright’s time on the witness stand stretched into a second day Wednesday as defense attorneys for Mayor Frank Melton and another former bodyguard, Michael Recio, tried to pick apart damaging testimony Wright gave Tuesday when he said Melton had been drinking heavily and was impaired when he led a group of teenagers in an attack on a duplex he believed to be a drug den.

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Wright testified during the civil rights trial that the mayor once asked him to sign a falsified affidavit, often sent he and the other bodyguard on liquor runs and drank to excess in front of them.

‘‘A numerous amount of times,’’ Wright said when asked by the prosecutor how often he saw Melton drink.

And when asked how often he saw the mayor drunk or impaired, he responded: ‘‘About half of that.’’

Melton and Recio face up to 25 years in prison if convicted on charges they deprived the duplex owner and her tenant of their civil rights in the attack. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Wright took a plea deal in October and still faces up to a year in jail. He told the jury he agreed to the plea out of fear of jail time and his feeling the three were guilty.

Both defense attorneys attacked Wright’s motivation for testifying.

‘‘You’re scared to death of being in jail for 40 years and you’re willing to say anything to avoid it,’’ said John Reeves, Melton’s attorney.

Wright repeatedly said he hoped to serve no jail time, but that he had not been promised such a recommendation from the prosecution.

Reeves pointed out a statement made by Wright during his plea hearing in October. At the time he said Melton was not drunk on the evening of Aug. 26, 2006, when the attack took place — contrary to what he said Tuesday.

When pressed, Wright said his ‘‘memory changed.’’

‘‘You want to accuse the mayor of being a commode-hugging drunk, but then you change your story to suit yourself,’’ Reeves said.

On redirect, prosecutor Mark Blumberg asked Wright to define what he considered impaired and asked if he felt the mayor had a high tolerance for alcohol. Wright said he saw the mayor drink so often, he was familiar with his levels of inebriation.

He said the mayor had been drinking scotch and water heavily before attending a football game that day. Though he didn’t drink while at the game, he stumbled while taking the stairs and Wright had to help him. When the group returned to the police department’s mobile command unit, Melton began drinking again before he ordered the group to the duplex.

Wright made several key points for the prosecution, testifying that he saw Melton break windows in the unit and invite a handful of teenagers to tear an exterior wall down and ransack the interior with sledgehammers.

Recio’s attorney, Cynthia Stewart, spent time trying to distance the actions of Recio and Melton. She elicited testimony from Wright that Recio did not have a weapon visible during the raid, that he spent some time during the attacks in the police mobile command unit and that he encouraged the teenagers to stay on the bus and away from the duplex.

Wright said he urged Melton to leave the area, but that he had no control over the situation.

Later, Wright said, Melton misled police department officials about the nature of the raid.

Police Cmdr. Tyrone Lewis recounted how he tried to get information about the mayor’s injured hand, an injury allegedly suffered when he smashed the windows of the duplex with a stick.

Lewis said Recio told him the mayor was hurt while chasing a drug suspect.

‘‘It was pretty apparent that any time (Recio) told you something, it came from Frank,’’ Lewis said.