Right or wrong, Melton’s hero status could increase

Melton’s Law: (n) The belief that other laws don’t apply as long as you’re “doing the right thing.”

Melton said last week he thinks he was ethically and morally right in the situation involving what he believed was a drug house.

He made that comment after a federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment against him and his bodyguards Michael Recio and Marcus Wright accusing them of violating the civil rights of the owner and tenant by conspiring to tear down that property. They also face a gun charge.

The Justice Department rarely prosecutes a case in which there already has been a state prosecution, but there have been some exceptions in recent decades, most notably the 1991 beating of Rodney King. A state court jury in California acquitted the policemen who beat King, only to see a federal jury convict the same policemen for the same crime.

In 2003, Klansman Ernest Avants was convicted on federal murder charges 36 years after a Mississippi jury had acquitted him in the 1966 slaying of plantation worker Ben Chester White.

Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham said the Justice Department had trouble ignoring the allegations in the Melton case because they involve “a big-city mayor who can direct law enforcement to basically shut that place down. It’s very difficult for the Department of Justice to turn a blind eye to that, even if this house was a den of sin and a crack house.”

“Melton’s Law” defines the attitude of the mayor, who is the former CEO of WLBT-Channel 3, said Jackson City Council member Leslie McLemore.

“When you come from the private sector and you are the boss,” McLemore said, “you assume the boss is king, and you sort of reign supreme. That’s been his attitude. Regardless of what’s being said by the chief advisers, he just totally disregards it. Because of where he sits on his throne, everybody else is a loyal subject, whether they want to be or not. If you disagree with him in any way, it’s heresy.”

Jackson City Council member Frank Bluntson conceded Melton “might not have gone by the rules we say, but he has done things to try and help somebody.”

The federal case against Melton and the others doesn’t constitute double jeopardy because state and federal courts have dual sovereignty.

For instance, a person could be prosecuted on a bank robbery charge in both state and federal court, despite the fact it involves the same facts and virtually the same charge, said former state and federal prosecutor Patricia Bennett, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law.

Asked whether a second jury might be as inclined as the first to acquit Melton, she replied, “You can never second-guess a jury.”

She gave as an example the recent case of Elicia Hughes, convicted by the first jury of murdering her husband. After the judge ordered a new trial, a second jury acquitted her.

“You never know,” Bennett said. “You don’t know what the next jury would do.”

Jurors should base their decisions only on the law and the evidence, but Bennett acknowledged that outside factors can sometimes play a part.

“Some may think because he’s a likeable person and it’s an honorable goal to curb crime, he ought not to be punished for that, but everybody’s entitled to due process of law,” she said. “If we’re just going to say people can’t be punished if they have a moral reason, then they can start eliminating people they consider a threat to society.”

Jones said he knows all about those who believe they’re morally right in what they’ve done.

On Jan. 29, 1998, a blast ripped through a Birmingham abortion clinic, killing a police officer and injuring a nurse. That morning, Jones watched the smoke rise from the twisted metal, wondering about the shape of the mind that would have done this.

In 2005, Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to that act as well as other bombings, including Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Park bombing in which two people died and 111 were injured. Rudolph defended his acts as right.

“People can bend and manipulate what’s morally right to their own thinking,” Jones said. “You do have people out there who have expressly said it’s OK to kill doctors who perform abortion. Well, it’s against the law.”

Despite the odds, Melton could still win, said Aaron Condon, professor emeritus of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

He called the latest charges against the Jackson mayor “overkill. At the most, this is a state case.”

The fact Melton is being prosecuted again could actually add to his cult-hero status, Condon said.

“Maybe he’ll settle down now, and quit his cowboy tactics, even though a certain amount of people want him to use those cowboy tactics.”

Clarion Ledger