The judge overseeing YNW Melly’s double murder trial in Florida is leaning toward declaring a mistrial, legal experts say.
On Thursday, Judge John Murphy III oversaw what the defense termed a “fiasco” in a Broward County courtroom: a lengthy and often dramatic series of improper questions directed toward a state witness – as well as testifying directly – care of the lead prosecutor.
That witness was Felicia Holmes, the mother of the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, Mariah Hamilton. Near the end of Holmes’ tense time on the stand, defense attorney David A. Howard moved for a mistrial. After jurors were gone, two members of the defense made their case, arguing two separate mistrial motions on two distinct grounds.
The judge said he had not made up his mind and deferred a discussion and ruling on the matter until court is back in session next Tuesday. But comments he made – only to the defense – suggest the court was somewhat sympathetic to the defense’s claims of a tainted jury.
“I suggest that you talk with your client,” the judge told Howard and fellow defense attorney Stuart Adelstein before referring to Melly by his given name: Jamell Demons. “Discuss with Mr. Demons whether or not – his feelings about a motion for a mistrial – I think it would be appropriate that he be consulted as well.”
Murphy went on to say he thought he heard “what was said” but needed to check with the court reporter about something.
“I’ll take it under advisement,” the judge went on. “But you talk to your client about it.”
Later, turning the courtroom into a private conference room for the defense, the court ordered the removal of cameras and, for a third time, encouraged Melly’s defense attorneys to “talk it over with him.”
Melly, 24, is a member and co-founder of the YNW Collective, a popular group of hip-hop artists. He stands accused of two counts of murder for the 2018 shooting and killing of his friends and fellow collective members Chris Thomas, 20, known as YNW Juvy, and Anthony Williams, 21, known as YNW Sakchaser. A co-defendant being tried separately, Cortlen Henry, 24, known as YNW Bortlen, is also accused of both murders.
Now, just four days into Melly’s trial – not counting several days of jury selection — the process may begin anew.
“Obviously we don’t know what is in the judge’s mind but his repeated requests for the defense to speak to their client shows at the very least that a mistrial is a real consideration,” former Brooklyn homicide prosecutor Julie Rendelman told Law&Crime.
But that’s only the beginning of the consideration.
“The defendant may not want a mistrial if he feels that the case is going his way,” Rendelman, a Law&Crime legal analyst, said. “Remember, the mistrial doesn’t end the case unless it’s a mistrial with prejudice. Instead, a new jury would be chosen and the prosecution would have a second chance to present evidence.”
Throughout the day on Thursday, lead prosecutor Kristine Bradley was repeatedly upbraided by the court for her questioning of Holmes and efforts to introduce testimony the court had ruled inadmissible.
The questioning of Holmes led to numerous objections from the defense — many of which were sustained, some of which were not. At one point, the court issued a curative instruction, calling the state’s line of questioning “totally improper” and telling the jury to disregard a question suggesting the defense had paid off the witness. In addition, Bradley was admonished by Murphy for directly testifying during her questioning of the witness.
“Mr. Demons has been prejudiced,” Howard, the defense lawyer, said during his mistrial presentation. “This jury sat there and watched this fiasco unfold with at least 10, maybe 15, sidebars after every two questions…All predicated on the implications and the inadmissible testimony that Ms. Bradley, herself, read into and spoke into the record. And for that reason, we think that it was deliberate. It is highly prejudicial. This jury has been tainted.”
Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Joshua Ritter told Law&Crime that Murphy’s response to Howard and Adelstein after they presented their motions was fairly telling under the circumstances.
“When a judge does that, it’s not-so-subtle code for ‘be prepared for me to actually follow through on your request if you actually want what you’re asking for,'” he said in an interview. “Part of trial practice is being able to pick up on these cues.”
The defense attorney explained the nuts and bolts of what’s really going on when such a request is made by a defense team.
“The request for a mistrial is not uncommon,” Ritter said. “Depending on the defense attorney they may make this request several times. Part of the nuance and subliminal language in trial practice is knowing how the judge might be leaning. In most cases, there is no real concern from the prosecution that a motion for a mistrial will be granted. But that’s not to say that such motions made by the defense are trivial or only for show – many times they are making these motions to preserve those issues for appeal.”
While mistrial motions may be typical, however, Ritter said that Thursday’s motions – and the prosecution’s efforts that preceded them – were anything but.
“In the vast majority of such cases, the prosecution isn’t concerned because they know there is a great hurdle for such a request to be granted – especially based on actions made by the prosecution,” Ritter explained. “Except of course if a judge starts making comments like he did yesterday – when a judge starts telling a defense attorney to ask their client to assess the ramifications of what they are asking for.”
“It wouldn’t be unheard of for a mistrial to be granted in this situation,” Ritter continued. “One of the rare instances that can trigger a mistrial are references made by the prosecution to evidence that has either been precluded from the trial or evidence that will never be presented in the trial because it is perceived that that bell cannot be un-rung. In other words, one of the chief obligations of the judge is to make sure that the evidence presented in court is confined to that agreed-upon and legally-permissible evidence. And when evidence is presented through, as in this case, questioning from a prosecutor, the judge may feel that a curative instruction might not solve the problem.”
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