JACKSON, Miss. – The mayor of Mississippi's largest city led a "rampage of destruction" when he directed a group of young men to use sticks and sledgehammers to destroy a duplex he considered a crack house, a prosecutor said Monday.
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton, 59, is on trial in federal court for violating the civil rights of the duplex's owner and her tenant.
"This case is about government officials who took a sledgehammer to the Constitution just as surely as they took it to Bubba's house," federal prosecutor Patricia Sumner said during opening arguments, referring to tenant Evans Welch.
Melton, who has already been acquitted on state charges in the same incident, has claimed he was just keeping a campaign promise to root out crime in Mississippi's capital city. He has not denied damaging the home in August 2006.
He and former bodyguard Michael Recio face three felony charges and a maximum 25-year sentence. They have pleaded not guilty.
Melton's attorney, John Reeves, is withholding his opening arguments until after the government rests its case.
Recio's attorney, Cynthia Stewart, told jurors the government's case is built on the lies of Marcus Wright, another former bodyguard who took a plea deal and turned on the others.
"He's lied and he's lied and he's lied," Stewart said.
Stewart said Wright is the one who entered the home in a threatening manner, with his gun drawn, but now he is afraid of prison and will say anything to save himself. She said Wright entered a plea after federal prosecutors threatened him with more charges.
She also said the home's tenant needed help and told Melton to "tear the house down" because he was being victimized. Melton has argued in court papers that drug dealers were bullying the tenant and using the site for drug distribution.
The first witness, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, testified that he warned Melton months before the duplex attack that his unorthodox approach to crime fighting was "stepping close to, if not over, the line."
After being elected by a landslide in 2005 on a tough-on-crime platform, Melton hit the streets packing guns and participating in police checkpoints and other operations. The government hopes to use Hood's testimony to show the mayor knew he was going too far. The government must prove Melton willfully or intentionally violated the civil rights of the duplex's owner and tenant.
"This wasn't about politics, this wasn't about the media, this was about the law," Hood said, recalling a conversation with Melton in May 2006.
Duplex owner Jennifer Sutton also took the stand, wiping away tears as she described the damage and the hardships she has faced. Sutton, 40, cleans homes for a living and said she bought several small duplexes in 2004 in hopes of earning extra money.
Welch, a 48-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic with a long criminal history, already lived in his unit when Sutton bought the duplex. Sutton said Welch's mother paid his rent every month and she had never even been inside the apartment.
Sutton testified that she went to the duplex the day after it was damaged.
"I couldn't believe it so I drove around twice just trying to grasp what was going on," she said.
She also said Melton and others called her about the home after it was damaged, but she hired a lawyer after Melton was "rude and loud."
"It was rude, loud and I just hung up," Sutton said. "He was disrespectful."
Melton is a former television executive and one-time head of the state narcotics agency. He made a name for himself years ago with a tough-talking opinion segment called "The Bottom Line" on the station he ran.