When YNW Melly goes on trial later this month for the murder 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 his group members Chris Thomas, 20, who was 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 Oct. 26, 2018 after Melly, Bortlen, Juvy and Sakchaser left a recording session in an SUV.
Bortlen drove to a hospital and claimed the group had been targeted in a drive-by shooting. Juvy and Sakchaser had been shot to death. Following the murders, Melly posted on Twitter “They Took My Brothers From Me Over Jealousy I know y’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 announced they would seek the death penalty against Melly with the support of the victim’s families.
Melly’s trial has been delayed several times because of COVID and arguments over the death penalty and evidence. Melly was 19 at the time of the murders.
Change to death penalty in Florida
In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that lowered the threshold for the imposition of the death penalty. The new law, allows for the death penalty by an 8-4 vote. Previously, jurors had to vote unanimously 12-0 to impose the death penalty.
“Florida’s now said ‘we don’t care if a third of you don’t agree. If two thirds of you do, 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” meaning they go through an extra additional layer of questioning about their feelings about the death penalty. Prosecutors typically ask prospective jurors whether they can set aside personal or religious beliefs and follow the law regarding punishment.
“Given that you’re starting with a group of people who are in favor of the death penalty, raising the number of dissents that can still be ignored, makes it easier to get a death sentence,” Epstein said.
The law change came in response to Nikolas Cruz receiving a life sentence in the Parkland school shooting case last year. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members on Valentine’s Day in 2018. Cruz had talked about his plans to commit the murders online beforehand.
Jury selection in Melly’s case began in April. At the time, his mother appeared hopeful on social media.
“Melly 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 everywhere but God got us,” Jamie King wrote on Instagram.
Jury selection is ongoing. Opening statements are expected later in the month.
Rise to fame, past legal troubles and personalities
Melly was raised by a single mother in southwest Florida. When he was a teenager, he began writing and recording music. In 2015, then 16-year-old Melly was charged in an incident where he fired a gun near three people outside of Vero Beach High School. The three victims were students and were not hurt.
While serving his sentence, Melly wrote “Murder on My Mind” and “Blue Balenciagas”. The music was released via Sound Cloud and YouTube and made Melly a success. He collaborated with other artists including Kanye West.
Melly discusses his faith in God in several videos posted on YouTube.
“It don’t matter what you want to do as long as you’ve got God and faith on your side,” Melly said in one clip.
But a darker side to the young rapper is also on display in the videos. In one, he discusses having two personalities: Melly and Melvin. Melly is “Michael Jackson, literally Michael Jackson but still thugging it.”
Melly went on to say that Melvin is different and he only allows him out at night.
“Melvin’s just like, once you play with Melly, to a certain extent, Melvin just don’t like that.”
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