After a week of delays, prosecutors on Monday rested their case in the double murder trial of rapper YNW Melly — granting the defense an opportunity to present its own witnesses.
The state wrapped up with Miramar Police Detective Mark Moretti’s testimony, during which he presented an alleged confession Melly sent via Instagram on the day of the murders. Defense attorneys expect to start calling witnesses Tuesday morning. The process could take about a week.
Melly, whose real name is Jamell Demons, is accused of shooting his childhood friends Anthony Williams and Christopher Thomas Jr. in an alleged drive-by cover-up after spending the night of Oct. 26, 2018, at a Fort Lauderdale recording studio. Williams and Thomas, both aspiring rappers with the YNW collective, were known as YNW Sakchaser and YNW Juvy, respectively.
The 24-year-old’s case is among the first being considered after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law to lower the threshold for a death sentence to an 8-4 vote.
Phones still at center of the case
Moretti, whose testimony was postponed last week after an attorney got sick, returned to the stand Monday. His focus remained on linking a phone to Melly. Throughout the trial, the defense has argued the phone didn’t belong to Melly, noting it was a communal phone used by all in the home that he and his friends shared.
The phone number, Moretti testified Monday, was tied to Melly’s Facebook account. Search warrants, he said, didn’t show any indication that codefendant Henry had used Melly’s Facebook, Instagram or phone number.
After weeks laying groundwork to establish the link to the phone, prosecutor Kristine Bradley read through more Instagram exchanges, in which some between Melly and a man known as Peezy Gambino stood out. On Oct. 25, 2018, the pair discussed merch and needing an old iPhone.
But the following day, Moretti says, Peezy Gambino asked if Melly was OK.
“I did that,” Melly responded on Instagram. “Shhhh”
Defense attorney Stuart Adelstein tried to cast doubt on the alleged confession, introducing 19 pages of text messages where Melly spelled “that” as “dat.”
“These phone messages that the state introduced...pages that we painfully went through, he spells it d-a-t not t-h-a-t,” Adelstein said. “What a strange thing.”
Bradley challenged Adelstein’s claim by mentioning one of the rapper’s songs called “Melly Fix That” and showing several messages in which he spells the word the conventional way.
Last week, the state presented hundreds of messages meant to associate the rapper with the phone. With the help of Moretti, prosecutor Camille Smith read through the conversations, which were supposedly between Melly and his mother Jamie King.
Most of the messages spanned from August to December 2018 — and offered a glimpse into their relationship. They ranged from King scolding Melly for missing a show to reassuring him that she loves him and would always be there. In some, Melly sent his mother expletive-ridden messages that the defense sought to throw out, fearing that they would prejudice mothers on the jury.
Moretti on Wednesday also identified an Android phone that was found with a broken screen in the right rear passenger side of the Jeep Compass. Investigators, Moretti said, were unable to complete a forensic examination of the phone. He said he even tried to extract data from the SIM card, but it didn’t read, meaning the device was “inoperable.” The defense requested to review the Android phone.
At Adelstein’s instruction, Moretti put on gloves and removed the phone from the yellow evidence envelope. The detective read the serial number off the SIM card before showing it to the jury — and telling Adelstein that he didn’t try to track down the phone’s owner, despite having the SIM card number and phone carrier.
.Adelstein also questioned Moretti about the technology in the investigation, pointing to how FBI Special Agent Brendan Collins testified in late June that cellphone data couldn’t definitively point to a phone’s location and that some of the science isn’t reliable.
Moretti, however, said he was able to corroborate the phone’s movements through video surveillance, including when Melly was captured at the recording studio and the Jeep was spotted near several businesses. The detective confirmed that cellphone location science isn’t always correct — and could even prove to be inaccurate, depending on cell tower locations.
While questioning Moretti, Adelstein combed through a list of 14 potential suspects. During opening statements, defense attorney David Howard claimed that Moretti saw Melly on tape, learned he was a rising star and got tunnel vision. Howard also alleged that other leads weren’t properly vetted or investigated.
“These are all unanswered questions,” Howard said on the first day of trial. “No investigation. Case closed. Let’s move on.”
Adelstein mentioned a man who on social media claimed that he was behind the murders. Moretti said he interviewed the man two years after the shooting — when the case was already closed. The man told detectives he was at work, though Moretti said he never interviewed any of his coworkers to verify his whereabouts.
The defense asked Moretti if he questioned rapper Quando Rondo, one of the potential suspects who had previously threatened Melly. Moretti also said he didn’t question Melly’s manager Track, whose real name is Jameson Francois, about the guns, magazines and casings found in his home after a search.
Bradley, too, went through the list of suspects, questioning Moretti about how each proposed suspects were ruled out.
“Our decision to make an arrest is based upon the totality of the circumstances,” Moretti said before the state rested its case. “Not just one person’s name, one text message. It’s everything.”
The defense later shifted focus to how Moretti didn’t ask for a search warrant for the home Melly and friends shared. The detective said there was no nexus between the crime and the home — and that’s something for which judges ask. Adelstein blasted Moretti:
“Did you even try, sir, to get a search warrant and go in front of a judge and say: ‘I got eight people who left the studio. They all live in the same house. The driver of the vehicle...lied and the inside of the Jeep is covered in blood. We’re looking for the gun... and the bloody clothes involved in this?’”
“That’s not how that works,” Moretti responded.
Moretti sat on the stand with a blank expression on his face as Adelstein accused of him of threatening several witnesses in the case. One was Francois, whom Moretti told would be deported and sent to a crowded Haitian jail.
“Do you think threatening a witness who tells you something you don’t like really gets to the truth?”
The defense will begin presenting its witnesses Tuesday at 9 a.m.