Prosecutor balances pastoral duties

As a Baptist preacher, John Melvin is patient with sinners.

As a prosecutor, he has earned a reputation for doggedly pursuing them.

Over the past 18 years, Melvin has worked as a prosecutor in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties and has become one of the state’s most experienced prosecutors of corrupt public figures.

He has successfully prosecuted three former Recorder’s Court deputy clerks who were caught in a ticket-fixing scheme that cost the county millions in unpaid fines. And, he got convictions of two people who conspired with a former DeKalb Sheriff’s Office supervisor to pocket unclaimed bond money.

In still unresolved cases, Melvin oversaw the special-purpose grand jury that investigated possible corruption in DeKalb County water and sewer department contracts. The grand jury’s probe was completed early this year, but its final report and presentment remains under seal.

Earlier he led the investigation of a former DeKalb County Public Schools Superintendent, its one-time chief operating officer and the COO’s husband who have been indicted for allegedly mismanaging more than $80 million in taxpayer money. They are awaiting trial and have pleaded not guilty.

It helps for anyone in charge of a public integrity unit to be above reproach themselves. Fortunately enough, Melvin’s image is so squeaky-clean that District Attorney Robert James has described him as a “Boy Scout.”

His politeness would make any Southern mother beam with pride. Melvin jokes that he can’t even address his own daughters without calling them ma’am, because “I’m a Southerner, mama beat me and I went to West Point.”

“So it’s the perfect storm for politeness,” he laughed.

Not only that, Melvin has spent the last 15 years pastoring a congregation of about 75 souls at Camp Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Lilburn.

Like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, the worship services are held in a small, white country church where the congregation sits in maplewood pews and sings without instrumental accompaniment from an old-timey hymnal.

At a Sunday service last week, he preached on the Gospel of Mark and described John the Baptist as a “bug-eating, honey-licking, weird-dressed man in the wilderness” who came to prepare the way for Jesus.

Being a prosecutor isn’t that different from being a pastor in some ways, Melvin says. But instead of teaching a congregation about the Bible, he instructs juries on Georgia law. In both cases, his job is to help them understand how the precepts apply to real life.

Melvin is considered especially adept at handling criminal enterprise conspiracies using the RICO (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization) law. Such cases usually involve bribery, kickback and coverup schemes concocted by white collar criminals, said Don Geary, his close friend and the chief assistant District Attorney for Cobb County.

Geary said Melvin has advised other attorneys on RICO cases from California to New York, and he teaches the law to at the annual training seminar for new prosecutors in Georgia.

“He sees how smart ones get away,” Geary said. “He recognizes and uses the tools that prevent that, and RICO is a good one.”

Melvin said he’s not sure why he gravitated toward prosecuting people in a position of public trust, but it may have something to do with his undergraduate studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There, he was taught that “duty, honor and country” come first.

As 6-foot-3-inch-tall, athletic sophomore student at the academy, Melvin was planning a career in Special Forces until he suffered a brain aneurysm while jogging in a remote part of the expansive New York campus and nearly died.

After a 13-hour emergency surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Melvin woke two weeks later with no memory of what happened. A stranger peered back at him from the mirror. His head was shaved and scarred, and he was gaunt from having lost weight. It was soon apparent that returning to West Point was out of the question, because doctors barred him from participating in any rigorous physical activities that might jar his head for two years.

But Melvin saw other soldiers undergoing treatment at Walter Reed who had fared far worse, and that helped him put things in perspective.

“I felt that God gave me back my life for a reason,” Melvin said.

The DeKalb native returned home to finish out his undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia. And after graduating from law school at Ohio Northern University, he got his first attorney job in the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office.

He spent 11 years locking up lawbreakers in Gwinnett before leaving in 2006 to take a higher-paying job with more responsibility with then-DeKalb County District Attorney Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming.

Then in January, Melvin and close friend Geary, who had been the No. 3 employee in the DeKalb DA’s office, left together to take a job with the newly elected Cobb County District Attorney, Vic Reynolds. The move will allow Melvin, a husband and father of four, to spend more quality time with his family.

Reynolds has said Melvin will handle any public corruption cases that arise going forward, along with white collar crimes and other specialized prosecutions.

Melvin is currently handling the prosecution of Sgt. Alvin Sutherland of the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, who is accused of sexually assaulting a female inmate. He is also steering the case against Cobb EMC chief Dwight Brown, who is charged with stealing millions from the electric membership cooperative and making false statements to customers, according to his indictment.

Even former foes like defense attorney Tony Axum, who represents Reid in the DeKalb schools case, say Melvin is a worthy opponent.

“Defense lawyers would prefer it if we were up against lawyers who are not smart and not zealous and do not understand what they’re doing,” Axum said. “That’s an advantage if you’re a defense lawyer. I have no advantages when John Melvin is on the other side.”

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