Civil rights trial starts for Mississippi mayor

JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - The mayor of a Mississippi city who went on crime-fighting sweeps in the city’s mobile police unit went on trial on Monday, accused of violating federal civil rights laws.

Jackson Mayor Frank Melton has pleaded not guilty over charges stemming from an incident in August 2006 in which he allegedly conducted a search and seizure raid without a warrant in one of the city’s low income neighborhoods.

If convicted, Melton, who says he believed the home was a site of drug use and sales, could face up to 25 years in prison.

Melton and his bodyguards arrived at the duplex in the police department’s mobile command unit and ordered a group of young boys wielding sledgehammers to attack it, according to a federal indictment in July 2008.

“The young men damaged the exterior and interior of the house, as well as private property within the house, using sledgehammers at the direction of Frank E. Melton, while (bodyguards) Michael Recio and Marcus Wright stood guard,” the indictment said.

While U.S. mayors may work closely with police departments, it is highly unusual for a mayor to assume such a hands-on role.

Melton and Recio are on trial. Wright pleaded guilty to lesser charges last year and the prosecution will likely call him as a witness.

Melton, a Democrat, is the city’s second black mayor. He was elected with more than 80 percent of the vote in 2005 on a pledge to crack down on crime.

Shortly after taking office, Melton styled himself as public crime fighter number one. He began police-style sweeps of poor, largely black, neighborhoods that soon came under legal scrutiny.

He was acquitted in 2007 along with two other men of state charges stemming from the same raid.

Editing by Matthew Bigg and Vicki Allen