This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between. This week: A murder case against rapper YNW Melly turns into an appellate battle over the death penalty, Phoebe Bridgers defeats a producer’s defamation lawsuit, Megan Thee Stallion wins a restraining order against her label, and much more.
THE BIG STORY: YNW Melly Could Face Death Penalty
Three years after he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, YNW Melly has found himself at the center of a legal battle over the death penalty, with a trip to the Florida Supreme Court looming next.
If you haven’t been following: Melly (real name Jamell Demons) faces two counts of murder over accusations that he and another rapper, YNW Bortlen, shot and killed Anthony “YNW Sakchaser” Williams and Christopher “YNW Juvy” Thomas Jr. in 2018.
A first-degree murder defendant in Florida would typically face the possibility of execution if convicted. But earlier this year, Melly’s attorneys argued that the state had forfeited the right to seek capital punishment by failing to comply with strict laws on how they must warn defendants that they’ll do so.
Florida requires prosecutors to give notice 45 days after arraignment if they plan to seek capital punishment. In Melly’s case, the state attorney filed such notice when they originally indicted the rapper in 2019, but they then failed to do so when they re-charged him with a so-called superseding indictment earlier this year. In July, a state trial judge sided with Melly’s lawyers, taking the death penalty off the table.
But in a ruling last week, a state appeals court overturned that decision. Since prosecutors gave notice that they might seek death when they first charged him, the court said they had complied with state rules – and more importantly, had avoided the due process problems the rules were designed to safeguard against.
“Notice is notice,” the court wrote in its opinion. “The defendant has had nearly three years to start the preparation of his defense to the state seeking the death penalty [and] the record contains no evidence that the defendant was prejudiced in any way.”
The ruling likely won’t be the last on Melly’s case. In handing down its decision, the appeals court certified that the case dealt with novel legal questions that are of “great public importance” to the state of Florida – meaning they should be decided by the state’s Supreme Court.
In a statement to Billboard, Melly’s attorney Philip R. Horowitz said he and his client were “disappointed in the ruling” but “look forward to our opportunity to argue our position before the justices.”
Other top stories this week…
PHOEBE SLAPPS DOWN LAWSUIT – A Los Angeles judge tossed out a lawsuit against Phoebe Bridgers that accused her of defaming producer/studio owner Chris Nelson, citing California’s anti-SLAPP law that’s designed to protect free speech against questionable lawsuits. Nelson’s lawsuit claimed that Bridgers lied about him in a series of October 2020 Instagram posts, in which the singer amplified accusations of abuse made against him by another woman. Her lawyers then fired back that Nelson was just using the lawsuit to “chill Ms. Bridgers’ allegations of abusive conduct, which are protected by the First Amendment.” Though Judge Curtis A. Kin sided with that argument last week, he did not issue a written ruling explaining the decision. Nelson has already vowed to appeal; a rep for Bridgers said the star felt “vindicated that the court recognized this lawsuit as frivolous and without merit.”
MEGAN THEE PLAINTIFF – A judge in Texas sided with Megan Thee Stallion and granted her a restraining order against her record label 1501 Certified Entertainment, issued after she claimed that the company “unlawfully” took steps “to block or interfere” with her ability to use her music in the lead-up to the AMAs on Sunday. The order bars the company from “preventing or blocking the use and exploitation” of Megan’s music in promotional content for the AMAs. The tussle ahead of the awards show is the latest front in a years-long legal war between Megan and 1501. She claims the label duped her into signing an unfair contract and has retaliated against her for challenging it; the company claims Megan, with the help of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, is using baseless litigation merely as a vehicle to escape a deal she “no longer likes.”
YE SUED YET AGAIN – Kanye West is facing a new copyright lawsuit over allegations that his “Life of the Party” illegally sampled from 1986 song “South Bronx” by the pioneering rap group Boogie Down Productions. The company that currently owns BDP’s copyrights says West’s people reached out to clear the sample, but then released it anyway when a deal was never struck. The case is the latest in a string of such infringement case against the embattled rapper, who (amid many, many other problems) has been repeatedly sued for failing to secure licenses for samples.
THEIR LOSS? – Just days after Condé Nast sued Drake and 21 Savage for using a fake cover story in Vogue magazine to promote their new album Her Loss, a federal judge issued a restraining order forcing them to stop using it. The judge ruled that the cover – one of several fake promos for the album – was likely violating the publisher’s trademarks because Drake and 21 were “misleading consumers” and “deceiving the public.”
DJ SUED FOR NFT PROFITS – 3LAU was hit with a lawsuit claiming the DJ refused to properly share the earnings from an $11 million NFT auction with Luna Aura, a musical collaborator who co-authored one of the songs involved. Aura claims she owns a 50% royalty stake in the song “Walk Away” from his album Ultraviolet — but that 3LAU (real name Justin Blau) offered her just $25,000 from the much-publicized NFT auction tied to the record: “Despite this financial windfall, defendants only offered Luna Aura a flat one-time payment.” 3LAU’s reps said the case was “without merit” and came as a surprise after months of negotiations.
BANKROLL FREDDIE ARRESTED – Rapper Bankroll Freddie (Freddie Gladney III) was arrested in Arkansas on federal gun and drug charges, part of a sweeping bust across the state that saw 80 defendants indicted and 45 arrested, including his father Freddie Gladney Jr. The rapper, signed to Quality Control, is facing 11 total charges, including various drug possessions and possession of a machine gun.