Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Friday the 13th was a dark day for Mayor Frank Melton and his two police bodyguards Michael Recio and Marcus Wright. This was their first real day in court regarding the events of Aug. 26, 2006, when Ridgeway Street residents say they saw the Mobile Command Center roll up in front of Evans "Bubba" Welch's duplex, near the corner of Mill Street. Melton was carrying a "Walking Tall" sticka club about 4 feet long and 4 inches in diameter with one end wrapped in black electrical tape. After one of his bodyguards broke down the back door of the duplex, Melton immediately started swinging the club, breaking the windows on the front and the sides of the house. He left for medical attention after he cut his hand on one of the windows, but the group returned an hour later.
This time, the mayor had help. Several young men emerged from the MCC with sledgehammers, going into the left side of the turquoise duplex and knocking holes in the wall, destroying furniture, and pouring paint all over the kitchen. At some point in the second round of destruction, the façade of the house was either pulled or fell to the ground, leaving the front a gaping window into a home that had been utterly destroyed. Melton's bodyguards arrested Welch for contempt of court and possession of paraphernalia, according to court records, but it was Melton et al. who were about to face serious legal trouble.
On Sept. 15, 2006, a Hinds County grand jury indicted Melton, Wright and Recio on five felony counts for their actions on Ridgeway, including burglary, malicious mischief, two counts of conspiracy and causing or directing a minor to commit a felony.
Friday the 13th was their first day in court, and it did not go well for the defense.
Friday's hearing concerned numerous motions by both prosecutors and defense attorneys. In less than two hours, Judge Joe Webster ruled against most of the motions brought by the defense, apparently leaving most of their "theory of defense" in tatters.
Specifically, Judge Webster refused to remove District Attorney Faye Peterson from the case or to throw out the indictments based on complaints by the defense regarding the DA's conduct.
Webster ruled that the defense could say that the Ridgeway House had a "reputation" of being a crack house in the past, but he ruled that defense attorneys may not discuss Evans Welch's criminal history, nor may they discuss children buying or using drugs at the house.
This did not stop former Mayor Dale Danks, who is one of Melton's attorneys, from discussing those allegations on WJTV later that day, in apparent violation of a court gag order. Danks has long complained about prosecutors making their case with the public even as he has done the same himself. Perhaps Danks' interview with WJTV was a bit of compensation, because he will not be able to make such allegations before a jury.
Wright and Recio attended the proceedings on Friday, but Melton did not. Peterson, who was subpoenaed by the defense, sat with prosecutors. Members of the audience included city Chief of Staff Marcus Ward, city employee Stephanie Parker-Weaver and Melton's proposed director of Parks and Recreation Charles Melvin.
In arguments before Webster, Assistant DA Dewey Arthur argued that defense attorneys should not be allowed to argue that the duplex at 1305 Ridgeway is a crackhouse, or a drug house, or a "drug distribution center." He complained that defense attorneys had not yet provided any police reports about alleged arrests at the Ridgeway duplex.
Defense attorneys argued in pre-trial motions that discussing the building's criminal history was an essential part of their defense. Arthur said it was hard to know how to respond because he didn't know what the theory of the defense would be. He speculated that defense attorneys would argue that the defendants had demolished the duplex due to "necessity," which would require them to admit that they had in fact demolished the duplex, or they would argue that defendants had been framed by unsavory characters in the neighborhood. Either way, Arthur argued, the law required that "a theory of defense must be legally correct," and he argued that discussing the history of the duplex had no bearing on whether the defendants were guilty of the crimes in the indictments.
Defense attorney Charles Mullins responded that they would not argue that the defendants were framed. Instead, they would undermine the idea that "malice" was involved in the defendants demolishing the duplex. "Our theory is that this was not a random house they chose," Mullins said. "They chose the house because it was a crack house under surveillance by a DEA-JPD joint task force."
Webster ruled that defense attorneys could assert that the Ridgeway duplex had a reputation as a crack house in the past, but they would not be able to refer to children buying or using drugs there.
As for Welch's criminal history, prosecutors noted that he has no felony drug arrests. Ordinarily, defense attorneys would not be allowed to discuss Welch's criminal history except for "crimes of dishonesty" that might reflect on his credibility. Defense attorneys indicated in pre-trial motions their intent to introduce testimony that Welch produced and sold crack cocaine at the duplex.
Welch is mentally ill and suffers from depression and schizophrenia. In 1999, Welch's mother Louvenia Welch had him committed, stating that her son was "easily agitated; he constantly uses abusive language and make verbal threats; he has been shot and cut several times and in jail on a constant basis; he is a danger to himself and other people," according to commitment papers.
Until recently, Welch had a long history of mostly petty charges, such as several incidents of shoplifting, possession of paraphernalia and violating open container laws. Despite defense motions indicating they intent to argue that Welch is a drug dealer, he has only ever been charged with one count of marijuana possession and another for cocaine possession, in 2005. He has never been charged with possession with intent to distribute any drug. On March 23, Welch was arrested for his first violent offense beyond a domestic violence charge his mother said she brought in order to have committed. Welch is accused of stabbing Jackson resident Dwayn Mack, but he has not yet had his day in court. As a consequence, defense attorneys will not be allowed to discuss that charge in court regardless if Webster admits other parts of Welch's history.
Webster said he needed more information to determine whether or not defense attorneys could discuss any of Welch's criminal history, but for now, he said he would not allow defense attorneys to discuss such material before the jury.
"As far as opening statements and voir dire are concerned," Webster said, "I'll let you mention that the house had a reputation as a crack house, but that's the extent of it. It's not something I'm going to let you hammer and hammer on."
Senior Assistant DA Stanley Alexander then argued against allowing defense attorneys to discuss the "unusual speed" of the grand jury indictment, saying that such information was irrelevant and prejudicial.
Webster agreed. "If I would of had my way," he said, "we would have tried this case in February, and we would have done so had I not had rotator cuff surgery. I feel bad for other defendants who are waiting longer for their day in court, but that has no bearing on this case."
Webster also threw out a motion from defense attorneys arguing the grand jury was improperly empanelled.
He then heard a motion from attorneys for Recio and Wright arguing that the indictments against them should be thrown out because they did not have probable cause hearings. Defense attorney Robert Smith argued that even though the attorney general had issued an opinion that such hearings, which are required before authorities issues arrest warrants for public officials like teachers and police officers, are not required when the defendants are indicted by a grand jury.
Webster ruled against defense attorneys on this count as well. "The purpose of that code section is to prevent someone from making an outrageous argument against a public official and damaging their reputation with an arrest," Webster said. He cited examples such as an arrest warrant being issued for a teacher who had spanked a child. "That is not the case here," he said.
When Smith objected, Webster said that he was confident in his opinion on the Legislature's intent.
"Now what is this about the upper room, or whatever it is?" Webster asked, referring to a motion from defense attorneys to exclude all mention of events at the Upper Level night club on the same night as the Ridgeway incident.
On the same night that Melton and his associates allegedly demolished the Ridgeway duplex, they conducted a raid on the Upper Level night club, which Melton has shut down many times in the past. Prosecutors said they had video of Melton carrying a "walking-tall stick" in the club, and Recio and Wright were both carrying MP5 submachine guns, just as witnesses described them at Ridgeway.
When Upper Level manager Tonarri Moore refused to stop photographing police as they moved through the club, they arrested him for resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and abusive language. They handcuffed Moore and took him outside, witnesses say, where a group of young men filed off the MCC and beat and kicked him, witnesses say, to the point that he had to be taken to the hospital.
Defense attorneys argued that any evidence on events at the Upper Level would only prejudice the jury, and Webster seemed inclined to agree. He excluded mention of the Upper Level for now, but he did say that he would allow the state to introduce evidence in rebuttal if it was warranted.
Next, Mullins argued that the indictments should be thrown out because they did not specify during which of the defendants' two visits they committed the crimes, citing burglary as an example.
Alexander argued that this specificity was unnecessary, and he noted that even in cases where the indictment listed dates wrong, the courts did not find that this merited throwing out the indictment.
Webster asked how long the gap was between the two visits. When Alexander told him it was only an hour, he ruled that the indictments would stand.
Smith then argued for the defense that count five of the indictments, causing or directing a minor to commit a felony, should be thrown out because the youth in question, Michael Taylor, had already been charged as an adult at the time of the Ridgeway incident.
Webster dismissed that motion very quickly. "A criminal charge treating him as an adult does not emancipate him in other respects," Webster said. He argued that by the defense's theory, any minor who was charged as an adult would then enjoy the full range of adult rights, including the right to enter into binding contracts.
The hearing then turned to the motion to dismiss the indictments because of Peterson's alleged inappropriate contact with Wright. This was, perhaps, defense attorneys' last, best hope for having the indictments dismissed outright.
On Oct. 27, 2006, Danks filed a motion accusing Peterson of prosecutorial misconduct because she allegedly provided legal counsel to Wright, which is prohibited by state law. As part of his motion, Danks submitted an affidavit from Wright in which he said he called Peterson the day he was indicted, he spoke with a "good friend" named Kristi Moore who is friends with former Upper Level attorney Edna Stringer. Stringer then spoke to Peterson about Wright's interest in speaking with her. On Sept. 16, Wright called Peterson on her cell phone, using the number Stringer gave him, and had a 13-minute conversation about the charges against him.
According to Wright, Peterson told him that he was in trouble, but "you can get out of yours." She directed Wright to speak to the FBI, he said. When Wright asked what kind of timeline he had to call the FBI, Peterson said "now," according to Wright. Wright said that Peterson told him she was about to leave town and that "no one would know about their discussion or what was discussed." When he met with the FBI, Wright was allegedly told that "they did not want (him) or Recio; they wanted Frank (Melton) and what I could tell them about corruption." Wright told them he was not aware of any "corruption," and he subsequently backed out of any proposed plea deal.
Danks argued that Mississippi law makes it a crime for a prosecutor to communicate with defendants, citing Mississippi Code §97-11-3. He also cited Balfour v. State to argue that Peterson's conversation with Wright violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
In motions filed by the DA's office Oct. 31, 2006, Peterson contested Wright's allegations, arguing that the first thing she had done was advise Wright to get an attorney. She did not, the motion contended, offer Wright legal advice, and she disputed most of the rest of Wright's assertions. On Friday, Arthur repeated those arguments and noted that Wright had in fact gotten an attorney, namely Smith, who accompanied Wright to his meeting with the FBI.
The first issue the court considered Friday was whether Melton had standing to bring the motion before the court, since it was Wright's constitutional rights at stake.
Melton attorney Dale Danks argued that Melton did have standing because Peterson allegedly told Wright that he could get out of trouble if he turned on Melton.
Webster found that Melton did not have standing, and then directed his questions to Smith. Webster focused in on who initiated contact, Wright or Peterson. Smith argued that Peterson had initiated contact by telling Wright to contact her through intermediaries, but Webster was unmoved.
"I'm not going to remove the DA in this case because in my opinion, Marcus Wright initiated the contact," Webster said. This rendered the rest of defense attorneys' allegations moot, and Webster dismissed their motion.
Finally, Danks took exception to the DA's revelation in her Oct. 31 motion that Melton had sought a plea deal but then reneged. He said that Peterson had violated rules of professional conduct, as well as the court-imposed gag order, by disclosing the plea deal negotiations in a document she knew would be covered by the media.
It was then that Danks revealed why he had subpoenaed Brian Johnson of the Jackson Free Press and Chris Joyner of The Clarion-Ledger.
"After the motion," Danks said, "there were two major stories about it. One was written by Chris Joyner in The Clarion-Ledger. The other was by Brian Johnson in what they call a newspaper here called the Jackson Free Press. The language in these stories is taken verbatim from the DA's motion. In fact, the headline of the Jackson Free Press' story was 'DA Drops Bombshells.Ҕ
Danks then argued that the purpose of Peterson's revelation had been to taint potential jurors.
Webster responded by asking Danks if he was seeking a change of venue.
Danks replied that they still had confidence in the people of Hinds County, and Webster threw out that motion as well.
It remains unclear how defense attorneys will argue that while Melton and his associates did demolish the Ridgeway duplex, they should not be found guilty. Webster threw out much of the material they planned to use. There will be no talk of children using drugs, and he indicated skepticism toward discussing Welch's criminal history. Defense attorneys will be allowed to mention that the Ridgeway duplex had a "reputation" of being a crack house "in the past," but Webster was clear that he would not allow that to be the center-piece of the defense's argument.
The felony trial of Melton, Wright and Recio is scheduled for April 23.
The libertarians at Reason magazine http://www.reason.com/blog/show/119768.html are blogging again about our coverage of Melton.
That link didn't work. I'll fix it for you: http://www.reason.com/blog/show/119768.html
- golden eagle
That's hilarious. "Yosemite Sam" is a perfect description. Wish I thought of it first.
They are going to argue public necessity? Interesting. Lemme ask you why it was a necessity. I just have to say that the house is not going to sell drugs/make drugs/buy drugs etc... 1. Get warrant (!!!!) 2. Arrest the occupants 3. Stake out the property and arrest people selling/making/buying drugs there 4. Get authorization to demolish house 5. Done. How can you claim that it was a necessity to demolish the house? Good Lord. There was no public emergency. IF he had been selling/making/buying drugs, what's the necessity, as in, "If we don't demolish this house, right now, VERY bad things will happen.." What is the harm in waiting another day.. or two... or three? And why didn't the police do more to stop a "well known crack house?" They are lucky I'm not on this jury. I just hope the people on the jury are smart enough to come to their own conclusions about what really happened.
Amen, Law Clerk! Very well stated. I don't believe ATF even tears up a motel when they find a meth lab; just remove the endangered occupants while lab is volatile. This "bad house" was/is a duplex. No one has ever written about the people on the other side. Wonder if they will be testifying?
emergency? for Melton a state of emergency is an excuse to take a vacation.
An example of a public necessity: A fire has broken out. There is a house, that if not demolished ASAP will catch fire and spread the fire. The house is demolished to STOP the spread of the fire. If it wasn't demolished, then the fire would spread and the entire neighborhood would be engulfed in flames. Clearly, this is not the case! There was no emergency. I can't say that I'm not intrigued by this trial. However, the precedent that Melton and his legal team keep setting are worrisome.