As erratic as Melton is, though, it’s overkill for the U.S. Justice Department to be dogging him over an incident for which he has already been acquitted of criminal charges in a state court.
Last week, Melton and his police bodyguards, Marcus Wright and Michael Recio, were charged with two federal civil rights violations and a gun offense for the 2006 demolishing of a duplex that Melton contended was a “crack house.”
This tactic by federal prosecutors — using civil rights laws to get around the roadblock of double jeopardy — is nothing new. We saw it in the 1960s, when the feds prosecuted KKK members and other violent racists on civil rights violations because local courts in Mississippi and other Deep South states wouldn’t convict them on murder charges. We saw it in the 1990s, when four Los Angeles cops were indicted on federal civil rights charges following their acquittal in state court for the videotaped beating of Rodney King.
It is admirable for the feds to step in and prosecute heinous offenders when either their state counterparts are weak-kneed or when the bias of the local jury pool is so glaring that there’s no way to win a conviction in a state court.
Had it not been for the FBI, some of Mississippi’s most awful white supremacists, crooked politicians and, most recently, corrupt trial lawyers would never have spent a day behind bars.
But it’s another matter when the feds get involved simply because they appear to disagree with the verdict in the state court.
When Melton and the two bodyguards were put on trial in Hinds County last year on burglary and other related charges, the prosecutors were not just going through the motions. Then-District Attorney Faye Peterson would have given her eye teeth to win a conviction. Melton had been a frequent and public critic of Peterson’s crime-fighting efforts and made no secret that he would work later that year to have her defeated.
The jury, nevertheless, didn’t cooperate with prosecutors. It took a frontier approach to justice, deciding that Melton’s vigilante ways were less threatening to their neighborhoods than the havoc and destruction created by the well-armed drug dealers and the miscreants who surround them. The people in Jackson are a whole lot more frustrated by the drug trade and its attendant violence than anything the mayor has ever done.
Did the jury disregard the evidence and the law? Probably so.
But the miscarriage of justice was not so egregious — certainly nothing as unequivocal as the Rodney King beating — to call for the feds to try to correct the state jurors’ flawed judgment.
There isn’t a state acquittal for a violent crime that couldn’t be resurrected by the feds for civil rights violations. When the Justice Department delves into marginal cases such as Melton’s, it reinforces the perception that its choice of targets can be personal and political.