Masked witness, an undercover detective, testifies as gang expert in YNW Melly murder trial

A masked witness took the stand Thursday to testify in the murder trial of Jamell (YNW Melly) Demons, spooking at least one juror and raising the possibility that the defendant is being deprived of his right to a fair trial.

The witness was Danny Polo, a detective with the Broward Sheriff’s Office who is an expert on gangs and works undercover. Broward Circuit Judge John Murphy permitted Polo to testify with his face covered because Polo has received death threats from people unrelated to the Demons case.

Prosecutors say Demons was acting as a gang member when he killed his former friends Anthony Williams and Christopher Thomas on Oct. 26, 2018. If Demons is convicted, that allegation could be used to justify the death penalty.

But the Florida Supreme Court, in another case, overturned a death sentence and ordered a new trial for a convicted killer whose mother testified against him without being able to see him. The court, in Avsenew v. State, found that Peter Avsenew’s due process rights were violated because as his mother testified remotely, she could not see him. The court found this was a violation of Avsenew’s right to confront his accuser.

The right to confront his accuser was raised by one of Demons’ lawyers, Jason Roger Williams, in challenging Polo’s right to take the stand without showing his face. Jurors are supposed to consider the demeanor of a witness to determine his credibility, Williams said, and they can’t do that if they can’t see his face.

“The state could have chosen any expert in gangs,” the defense lawyer said. “They elected to choose one who has threats against his life that don’t concern this case, and who is undercover. They have precipitated this problem.”

The mask also caused problems for one juror, who passed a note to the judge late Thursday morning expressing “anxiety” over the witness because she once witnessed a crime committed by someone wearing a mask.

The juror’s anxiety prompted an early break in the morning session of the trial. Afterward, the juror told Murphy she would be able to proceed.

Jamell Demons, better known as rapper YNW Melly confers with his attorney, Stuart Adelstein at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Demons, 22, is accused of killing two fellow rappers and conspiring to make it look like a drive-by shooting in October 2018. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Jamell Demons, better known as rapper YNW Melly, confers with his attorney, Stuart Adelstein, on Thursday at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Undercover officers have occasionally been permitted to testify with their faces obscured in other trials.

When he resumed his testimony, Polo tied Demons to membership in G-Shine, an offshoot of the Bloods. “There’s hundreds of pictures of him with other Bloods,” Polo said.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers also sparred over whether a cell phone that appeared to be in Demons’ possession at one point on the day Williams and Thomas were killed actually belonged to Demons and that he held onto it throughout the night and early morning.

Witnesses established on Wednesday that the phone was in the Jeep where the victims were killed, and surveillance footage shows Demons left a recording session with the victims and the driver a short time earlier. But defense lawyers argue that the state never proved Demons held the phone while the crime was being committed.

Rafael Olmeda can be reached at or 954-356-4457.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.