When YNW Melly goes on trial later this month for the murders of his two friends, a change in Florida law could make it easier for the 24-year-old rapper to get the death penalty if convicted.
Melly, whose legal name is Jamell Demons, faces two counts of murder for the 2018 shooting deaths of members of his band Chris Thomas, 20, known as YNW Juvy, and Anthony Williams, 21, whose stage name was YNW Sakchaser.
A fourth member, Cortlen Henry known as YNW Bortlen, also faces murder charges. Police said Bortlen was driving the night of the murders and claimed they were the victims of a drive-by shooting. Bortlen will be tried separately.
YNW members murdered
The murders unfolded on October 26, 2018 after Melly, Bortlen, Juvy and Sakchaser left a recording session in an SUV.
Bortlen went to the hospital and claimed the group had been targeted in a drive-by shooting. Juvy and Sakchaser had been shot. Following the murders, Melly posted on Twitter “They took my brothers from me out of jealousy I know you are all watching over me.
Months later, in April 2019, Melly and Bortlen were charged with the premeditated murders of Juvy and Sakchaser. Both pleaded not guilty.
Bortlen’s trial has not yet been scheduled.
Broward County prosecutors have announced they will seek the death penalty against Melly with the support of the families of the victims.
Melly’s trial has been repeatedly delayed due to COVID and arguments over the death penalty and evidence. Melly was 19 at the time of the murders.
Passage to the death penalty in Florida
In April, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill lowering the threshold for imposing the death penalty. The new law authorizes the death penalty by a vote of 8 to 4. Previously, jurors had to vote unanimously 12-0 to impose the death penalty.
“Florida has now said “it doesn’t matter if a third of you disagree.” If two-thirds of you do it, that gives the judge permission,” said Jules Epstein, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.
Jurors in death penalty cases must be “death qualified”, which means they go through an extra layer of extra questioning about their feelings about the death penalty. Prosecutors typically ask prospective jurors if they can set aside their personal or religious beliefs and abide by the law when it comes to penalties.
“Given you start with a group of people in favor of the death penalty, increasing the number of dissenters who can still be ignored makes it easier to get a death sentence,” Epstein said.
The law change came in response to Nikolas Cruz’s life sentence in the Parkland school shooting case last year. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff on Valentine’s Day in 2018. Cruz had spoken of his intention to carry out the murders online beforehand.
Jury selection in Melly’s case began in April. At the time, her mother seemed hopeful on social media.
“Melly is coming home. Today I went to court expecting more delays, but we started jury selection. I can’t explain how I feel my anxiety is all over the place, but God got us,” Jamie King wrote on Instagram.
Jury selection is underway. Opening statements are expected later in the month.
Rise to fame, past legal issues and personalities
Melly was raised by a single mother in Southwest Florida. As a teenager, he began to write and record music. In 2015, Melly, then 16, was charged in an incident in which he fired a gun at nearly three people outside Vero Beach High School. The three victims were students and were not injured.
While serving his sentence, Melly wrote “Murder on My Mind” and “Balenciega Blues”. The music was released via Sound Cloud and YouTube and made Melly a hit. He has collaborated with other artists including Kanye West.
Melly talks about her faith in God in several videos posted on YouTube.
“It doesn’t matter what you want to do as long as you have God and faith on your side,” Melly said in a clip.
But a darker side of the young rapper is also on display in the videos. In one, he talks about having two personalities: Melly and Melvin. Melly is “Michael Jackson, literally Michael Jackson but still rogue.”
Melly went on to say that Melvin is different and only allows her out at night.
“Melvin is just like, once you play with Melly, to a certain extent, Melvin just doesn’t like it.”
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