Jury in Young Dolph murder trial will come from outside of Memphis, Tennessee, judge rules

FILE - Young Dolph performs at The Parking Lot Concert, Aug. 23, 2020, in Atlanta. Jurors in the trial of two men charged with killing Young Dolph will come from outside of Memphis, Tenn., because of intense media coverage of the fatal shooting in the rapper’s hometown, a judge ruled Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. (Photo by Paul R. Giunta/Invision/AP, File)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jurors in the trial of two men charged with killing Young Dolph will come from outside of Memphis because of intense media coverage of the fatal shooting in the rapper’s hometown, a judge ruled Friday.

Judge Jennifer J. Mitchell decided in favor of a change of venue motion filed by Justin Johnson’s lawyer, who argued during a Feb. 2 hearing that Johnson cannot get a fair trial before Memphis jurors due to the intense media attention and “public visceral outrage” over the slaying.

A jury will be be brought to Memphis from outside of Shelby County for the June 3 trial of Johnson and Cornelius Smith Jr. Both men have pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges in the daytime ambush of Young Dolph, who was buying cookies at a Memphis bakery when he was gunned down in November 2021.

“This court is wary that jurors from Shelby County will not be able to lay aside their opinions or impressions and render a verdict based upon the evidence presented,” Mitchell said while announcing her ruling.

Young Dolph, whose real name was Adolph Thornton Jr., was a rapper, producer and independent music label owner. He was gunned down while he was visiting his hometown to see a sick relative and hand out Thanksgiving turkeys.

Known for his depictions of tough street life and his independent approach to the music business, Young Dolph was admired for charitable works in Memphis. Along with the Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, he donated thousands of dollars to high schools and paid rent and covered funeral costs for people in the Castalia Heights neighborhood where he was raised. A neighborhood street was named after Young Dolph after his death.

Johnson’s lawyer, Luke Evans, had argued that the killing has received relentless attention from news outlets and on social media, where some commenters have called for Johnson to be lynched or killed in prison in an attempt to seek vengeance, not justice.

It would be dangerous for the trial’s integrity if a jury from the Memphis area were to be seated, and the court should not “play chicken” with the defendant’s rights in the slaying of the rapper, who was beloved in the city, Evans said in the Feb. 2 hearing.

Evans said Friday that he was pleased with the judge's ruling.

Prosecutor Paul Hagerman recommended that questionnaires be sent to a potential jury pool of about 150 to 200 people in Shelby County to gauge the effect of news coverage and social media commentary. Once that pool is winnowed down, the judge would question the remaining members of the jury pool about the media coverage.

Mitchell said Friday that such a process could delay the trial, which already was pushed back from March 11.

Hagerman said the change of venue would not pose an obstacle for prosecutors. The court will decide the county from which the jurors will come at a later date, he said.

“We can get this jury from wherever,” Hagerman said. “We're going to try this case, and we're going to see this thing until the end.”

Two other men were charged in the killing, which shocked Memphis and the entertainment world.

Hernandez Govan has pleaded not guilty to organizing the killing. A trial date has not been set for him. Jermarcus Johnson pleaded guilty in June to three counts of serving as an accessory after the killing by helping Smith and Justin Johnson, his half-brother.

Jermarcus Johnson acknowledged helping the two shooting suspects communicate by cellphone while they were on the run from authorities and helping one of them communicate with his probation officer.