When facing state charges, Melton assembled a legal team that included former Mayor Dale Danks Jr., his associate Michael Cory and criminal specialist Buddy Coxwell as well as Robert Shuler Smith and Winston Thompson. Smith now is Hinds County district attorney and Thompson his assistant.
In the trial, Melton’s assemblage of legal talent picked apart the case built by then-District Attorney Faye Peterson’s team. Mississippi College Law School professor Matt Steffey said Melton faces a different kind of opponent this time.
The Justice Department and the FBI are deep in resources and talent, he said.
“It’s a career federal prosecutor and not lawyers in a state DA’s office,” he said. “They’ve got resources and time that the average district attorney doesn’t have.”
When the federal government gets involved, it can “dig into every little corner of his life,” he said.
The lead prosecutor in the case is Justice Department Civil Rights Deputy Chief Mark Blumberg, who has decades of experience prosecuting civil rights crimes around the nation.
Melton, Wright and Recio are charged with violating the rights of the owner and tenant of the house to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, unconstitutionally misusing police power and committing a violent crime while in possession of firearms.
In their trial, Melton and his bodyguards were charged under state laws of burglary and malicious mischief, which had evil intentions as one of the criteria for breaking them. While the damage to the West Ridgeway Street house might be mischievous, defense lawyers called witnesses who testified the property had a reputation as a “crack house” and the mayor was operating with the good intention of shutting it down.
“It was clear damage was done to the house,” Danks said at the time. “But the prosecution must again prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt that … Mayor Melton and (Michael) Recio and Marcus Wright had an evil motive and an evil intent to do the things that they claimed they did.”
Frame of mind is not an element in the federal law the men are accused of breaking. However, context is important, criminal lawyer John Colette said.
“I think that’s relevant. You’ve got to explain what he was doing there,” he said. “Under totality of circumstances, their actions might have seemed reasonable.”
The “totality of circumstances” test has been the U.S. Supreme Court’s measuring stick during the past 25 years for determining probable cause for the issuance of a warrant. Colette said that test may apply since the tenant of the house, middle-aged Evans Welch, was arrested on several charges, including an outstanding warrant for marijuana possession the night the house was damaged.
Colette, who has experience defending clients in the federal system, believes the case against the mayor will be “somewhat difficult” to prove.
“I think the mayor’s concern was ridding Jackson of some of these crack houses,” he said.