YNW Melly: is US rapper in jail, when is his trial, jury deliberations and Florida's new death penalty rules

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The rapper has pleaded “not guilty” to the first-degree murder charges against him

YNW Melly's trial now enters its fourth week after he was arrested on two counts of first-degree murder in 2019. The rapper has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and has been accused of disrespecting one of the victim's mother during a court appearance, according to NBC Miami.

Melly, whose real name is Jamell Maurice Demons, is being represented by his lawyer David Howard. HITC reported that he delivered his argument on Monday (12 June), calling the state’s investigation into the case “incompetent and incomplete”. Prosecutors say the shooting took place as gang action, but the defense attorneys say the motive lacks credibility as the victims and Melly were close friends.

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Investigators allegedly found evidence that proved the artist fatally shot Anthony Williams, 21, and Christopher Thomas Jr, 19, (also known as YNW Juvi), in 2018 in Fort Lauderdale Florida. The selection process for the 12-person jury took just under two months, which has been four years in the making.

Police said that Melly, now 24, fatally shot his friends and then staged the crime scene to look like a drive-by shooting. At that time, the 19-year-old had begun enjoying his career, even collaborating with Kanye West on the song "Mixed Personalities". Melly is widely known for his song "Murder on My Mind". So is Melly in jail now, what is Florida's rule on the death penalty, what has his lawyer said so far and what did he do in court? Here is what you need to know. 

The trial begins on 12 June The trial begins on 12 June
The trial begins on 12 June | Getty

What happened to YNW Melly? 

Rapper YNW Melly's trial began on 12 June, after being arrested on two counts of first-degree murder on 13 February 2019. In the morning of 26 October 2018, a co-defendant and confidant Cortlen Henry rushed into Memorial Hospital Miramar’s emergency room, telling medical staff two men were shot inside his 2018 Jeep Compass, according to court records according to the Miami Herald.

Williams, also known as YNW Sackchaser, was found in the front passenger seat with gunshot wounds to his head and torso and Thomas Jr., 19, was found in the right rear passenger seat with gunshot wounds to the back and head by a Miramar police officer. In recounting their whereabouts, Henry said the trio had left the New Era Recording Studio in Fort Lauderdale when a car pulled up next to them on Miramar Parkway and opened fire. But police later came across a witness who said he was at the recording studio with Henry, Thomas, Williams and Melly that night. 

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Surveillance video saw all four men in the Jeep, and a single .40 calibre shell cashing tucked inside a white plastic bag in the left rear passenger seat - where Melly was sitting, court records reveal according to the Miami Herald. Since his arrest, Melly has been in the Broward main jail, despite efforts to get released at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The trial

Week one

Melly's defense attorneys move for a mistrial has been denied as the high profile court case continues. The first week saw the prosecution claim a bullet casing in the car indicate that the four men were together, and were shot dead from inside the car. The following day looked at the sweep of the Jeep where the men were killed, which led to one crime investigator to concede that she may have not changed her gloves when picking up different bottles of evidence which could lead to a "small" risk of cross-contamination.

On Wednesday, testimony about identifying shell casings from Broward Sheriff's Office Crime Lab Manager led the day, but no gun has been found so the prosecution failed to show Melly shot the victims.

On Thursday 15 June, defense attorneys for Melly moved for a mistrial after defense attorney David Howard declared there had been a "prejudicial fiasco" as he states a series of improper questions towards a witness, and direct testification, made by the prosecution. The witness, Felicia Holmes, is the mother of Melly's ex-girlfriend Mariah Hamilton. Holmes' 2018 statement differs on some key details from her sworn deposition in December 2022.

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In court she said "the state has ruined my life" as she has been "inundated" with alleged threats from the state about prosecution and eventual imprisonment if she did not cooperate. Judge John Murphy later dismissed the testimony of Holmes.

Week two

The notion for a mistrial was denied on Tuesday 20 June. On Thursday 29 June, prosecutors called upon gang expert and undercover detective Danny Polo to look into Melly's alleged affiliation with the G-Shine Bloods set. He said Melly knows all of G-Shine's shine signs and "does them very well". The prosecutor showed the court several messages and attachments sent to Melly's booking email, which includes G-Shine Bloods' bylaws and oaths.

However, an issue around Polo wearing a mask came about, as it triggered an anxiety attack in one of the jurors. Polo wore a balaclava-style mask to conceal his identity, due to ongoing death threats. A few months ago, Polo also testified during the trial of the three men convicted of robbing and killing XXXTentacion, and wore a mask then. The Judge has ruled that Polo will remove his mask for the remainder of his testimony.

On Thursday (22 June) a text conversation between Melly's mother and himself revealed the rapper asked for a Glock, as the defense claimed the number the state tied to Melly was shared by several people.

Week three

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The third week of the trial resumes with Polo's testimony. On 27 June, rappers Young Thug, Boosie, French Montana, Julez Santana and Quando Rondo were mentioned after the prosecution obtained 123 text messages sent between GBK gang members. Detective Polo said gang members use rappers to bring in "money and fame" who in return give "support so they can get into certain venues" according to Complex.

Later in the week, on 29 June, Sergeant Christopher Williams, claimed that the bullets which killed the two victims were not a result of a drive by shooting, and that the shooting had happened from inside the car. He said the angles of the bullets entering the victims' bodies were evidence of that - which debunks Melly's claims that a drive-by shooting caused the deaths.

On Friday, 30 June, a Broward County judge dismissed the prosecutor's motion for a jury to view the jeep where Williams and Thomas Jr were allegedly killed. The defense team said the request was "overkill" The team argued that since the measurements and pictures of inside the vehicle were already brought up during the trial it would not be necessary for a jury to see them again.

Week four

After a week long recess, in the courtroom on Monday 10 July, a witness testified seeing Melly in "different clothes" after the two were in the middle of a 12 hour recording at the New Era Recording Studios. According to Local10.com, the witness said he had fallen asleep, and was awoken by his phone ringing off the hook, an later he saw Melly who "wasn't wearing the same clothes".

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Prosecutors played a video in court showing footage of Melly filming himself as he attempted to squeeze inside a suitcase. This clip was found on his phone before turning himself in - however, this video was not shown to the jury.

Week five

Jurors have begun deliberating on Thursday afternoon (20 July) in the double murder trial of Melly, and he could face a possible death sentence if convicted. The prosecutors rested its case on Monday (17 July).  Both sides returned on Tuesday to hear testimony from the defense’s lone witness, Adrian Green who is a friend of Melly. The judge also spoke directly with Melly - while the jury was not present to confirm that the rapper did not wish to take the stand himself.

Both the prosecution and the defense presented their closing arguments on Thursday, and the jury are expected to continue their deliberations into Friday.

“Back when you first started here, some of you as early as April 10th, you agreed to follow the law and the law is clear that this defendant committed two counts of first-degree murder,” Assistant State Attorney Kristine Bradley told the jury. She is seeking the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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“You folks are going to determine this young man’s fate. I suggest to you folks that we have a reasonable doubt … that there is a conflict in the evidence, and there is a lack of evidence,” Attorney Stuart Adelstein, who is representing Melly, told the jury.

Florida's new death penalty law

On 20 April 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law which allows for the imposition of the death penalty when the jury recommends death by a vote of 8-4. Previously, all 12 jurors had to come to an unanimous decision on whether the death penalty should be levied. DeSantis then signed a bill expanding capital punishment in the state on 1 May, which allows for the death penalty to be imposed for certain sexual crimes committed against children, as well as in cases where the victim does not die. 

According to the American Bar Association, this is despite the existing Supreme Court precedent which limits the death penalty to offences that intentionally cause the victim’s death. This law also utilises the 8-4 standard. The move came after public outrage around Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, avoided death after a split jury in October 2022.

"Proper justice will be served in the state of Florida," DeSantis said at the time. However, this 8-4 split is the lowest threshold in the US, with Alabama being the only other state allowing split juries to recommend death sentences, and it requires a 10-2 majority. 

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If the jury decides to convict Melly and sentenced him with the death penalty, Melly would be one of the first to receive a death penalty verdict due to the new statute after Judge John Murphy granted state prosecutors’ motion to follow the new law.