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Rapper YNW Melly rose to fame in 2018 for having murder on his mind. Now, a Broward jury will soon decide whether the Treasure Coast native’s lyrics were more than him exercising artistic license — and played out in real life.
Melly, whose real name is Jamell Demons, is accused of gunning down his childhood friends Anthony Williams and Christopher Thomas Jr., in an alleged drive-by cover up on Oct. 26, 2018 in Miramar. Confidant Cortlen Henry, known as YNW Bortlen, was also arrested and charged with the murders.
Melly, 24, best known for hit song “Murder on My Mind” that captivated the internet, was arrested on two counts of first-degree murder on Feb. 13, 2019. Since then, he’s been in the Broward main jail, despite efforts to get released at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. His codefendant Henry, 24, pleaded not guilty and is currently out on house arrest. Court records indicate that Henry, who is facing two additional counts of accessory to murder, will not face trial at the same time as the rapper.
In 2022, prosecutors updated Melly’s indictment to include that the murders were committed to “benefit, promote and further the interests of a criminal gang.”
Here’s what to know about the case — and the upcoming trial — as a panel of jurors was selected in late April.
A staged drive-by shooting?
In the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 2018, Henry rushed into Memorial Hospital Miramar’s emergency room, according to court records. He told medical staff that two men were shot inside his 2018 Jeep Compass.
A Miramar police officer found Williams, 21, in the front passenger seat with gunshot wounds to his head and torso and Thomas, 19, in the right rear passenger seat with gunshot wounds to the back and head.
They were already dead.
Henry, court records say, recounted their whereabouts that night. He told police that 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. Williams and Thomas, both aspiring rappers, went by YNW Sakchaser and YNW Juvy.
Amid the gunfire, Henry lowered his body, he told police, to shield himself. He sped toward the nearest hospital the moment he knew his friends were struck by the spray of bullets.
Police scavenged the area where Henry said the shooting took place, but didn’t turn up any evidence matching Henry’s account, according to court records. They came across a witness who said he was at the recording studio with Henry, Thomas, Williams and Melly that night. Surveillance video captured all four men hopping into the Jeep, with Melly sitting in the left rear passenger seat. That’s where police later uncovered a single .40 caliber shell casing tucked inside a white plastic bag, court records reveal.
After looking at the pools of blood inside the bullet-riddled Jeep, police began to suspect that Williams and Thomas were shot inside the SUV, according to court records. Cell phone data also placed Melly, Thomas and Williams together throughout the night.
Court records show investigators located evidence, including another .40 caliber shell casing and glass matching the Jeep, on an isolated patch of Pembroke Road. Projectile analysis determined it to be unlikely for the barrage of bullets to have hit the SUV while in motion, according to court records. The autopsies suggested that the shots came from the left rear passenger side, where Melly was caught on tape sitting earlier that night.
Police believe that Henry and the rapper drove around with Williams’ and Thomas’ bodies for a while before entering the hospital. At some point, Melly got out of the Jeep. According to court records, Melly’s girlfriend and mother told investigators that he called them via FaceTime that night and said he was the victim of a drive-by shooting that left two of his friends dead. The mother of Melly’s girlfriend, who was present during the FaceTime, said it looked like he was hiding and waiting to be picked up.
Rumors and suspicion
During the investigation, officers came across a December 2018 documentary posted on YouTube.
In the 21-minute film, Melly shares his background story growing up in Gifford, a small community on the Treasure Coast. He’s sitting around and smoking with friends, including Thomas and Williams, as they reminisce about their past admiration for Chris Brown.
Melly’s mother, who was 14 when she was pregnant with the rapper, gleamed with pride as she packed for their move to South Florida and detailed her son’s lifelong love for music. The rapper even greeted a group of children from his hometown interested in the arts and vowed to help them as he furthered his career.
The documentary, however, also touched on Melly’s interest in guns and the cutthroat nature of the industry. One of Thomas’ messages echoed an ominous sentiment:
“Make you not know who to trust, you know what I’m saying?”
The video ends with Thomas’ voice as Melly faces the splashing ocean. Then, white text appears on the screen: “Four days after the completion of this film, YNW Melly and his friends were targets of a drive-by shooting in Miami, Florida,” a statement that police argue links the rapper to the scene.
Investigators also analyzed a series of Snapchat messages between Melly and his girlfriend sent two weeks after the killings, according to court records. They argue that the rapper is alluding to the murders — and Henry’s loyalty to him.
“Dis n**** saved my life he koming everywhere wit me kuz if dem crackers come grab him it’s my fault u forgot???” the rapper wrote. “I keep Bortlen wit kuz at da end of the day he did one of a realist shit in my life.”
In a now-deleted Instagram post, Melly addressed rumors about his arrest as he was preparing to turn himself in.
“...A couple months ago I lost my two brothers by violence and now the system want to find justice.. unfortunately a lot of rumors and lies are being said but no worries god is with me and my brother @ynw.bortlen and we want y’all to remember it’s a ynw Family I love you @ynwsakchaser1 and @ynwjuvy #freeus”
They Took My Brothers From Me Over Jealousy I know y’all watching over me it’s #ynw4l and after ️, they wanna see me break down and stop or in jail or a box but my niggas still need me they parents need me they family need me till we meet again my slimes pic.twitter.com/wuKuhulqAW
— Melvin & Melly 2 Face (@YNWMelly) October 27, 2018
After the slayings, fans and critics alike have dissected the lyrics of his best-known song “Murder on My Mind,” which features a grim retelling of an unintentional homicide over a blend of emotional piano riffs and hip-hop beats.
Yellow tape around his body, it’s a f****** homicide
His face is on a T-shirt and his family traumatized
I didn’t even mean to shoot him, he just caught me by surprise
I reloaded my pistol, cocked it back, and shot him twice
His body dropped down to the floor, and he got teardrops in his eyes
He grabbed me by my hands and said he was afraid to die
I told him, “It’s too late, my friend, it’s time to say goodbye”
And he died inside my arms, blood all on my shirt
Though internet sleuths claim the song is a confession or evidence of Melly’s guilt, the lyrics were written in 2016 while he was behind bars for other charges — years before the double murder.
Melly’s a savage, no he not no amateur
In 2015, the rapper was charged with three counts of aggravated assault and a count of discharging a firearm after shooting at three people near Vero Beach High School. The then-16-year-old spent a year in jail before being arrested again on a probation violation in 2017. He was behind bars until March 2018.
After his 2019 arrest, Melly and Henry were being considered possible suspects in the 2017 Gifford shooting death of Garry Chambliss, an off-duty Indian River County sheriff’s deputy, according to local news source VeroNews.
What to expect from the trial
The trial, which is estimated to run through all of June and July, will likely include weeks of witness and expert testimony. Court records show ballistics, forensics and gang experts listed as potential state witnesses. The trial was slated to start in 2022 but was ultimately pushed back.
As rap lyrics have been used in hundreds of trials, many following the case online have hypothesized that Melly’s lyrics, specifically those in “Murder on My Mind,” will be discussed during the trial. In court, rap songs are treated as confessions, proof of intent or threats, whether written before or after the crime, Erik Nielson, a professor at the University of Richmond, told Genius in 2016.
Melly is also facing the death penalty after several challenges — and years of legal limbo. The issue was raised to the Florida Supreme Court this year, but it declined to exercise jurisdiction. The death penalty case comes after Florida lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a law allowing juries to recommend a death sentence with an 8-4 vote instead of a unanimous vote as previously required. The push to reduce Florida’s death penalty threshold was inspired by the Parkland school shooter not receiving the state’s highest punishment due to a split jury.
YNW Melly came into the public eye in 2018 with his double-platinum song “Murder on My Mind,” which he initially released on Soundcloud. He would go on to collaborate with several popular artists such as Kanye West, Juice WRLD and Trippie Redd and released his debut album “Melly vs. Melvin” while locked up.