It’s been two years since masked assailants gunned down celebrated rapper Young Dolph, whose legal name was Adolph Thornton Jr, as he shopped near his boyhood home in South Memphis.
For two years, Dolph’s fiancée has raised their young son and daughter alone while shouldering her profound grief – and staying largely silent on the murder case that grew to include four defendants.
Mia Jaye now believes her silence was “taken for granted” by law enforcement. Going forward, she wants assurances justice for Young Dolph – the 36-year-old musician and PRE label boss whom she met through a college roommate and was planning to marry – will be “prioritized.” “I’m fed up. It’s been two years’ worth of conspiracies. Two years’ worth of unknowing. Two years’ worth of people not properly communicating to you,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Jaye says she declined to get specific with public comments about the criminal case in the past because she didn’t want to “muddy the water” as investigators followed leads linked to the November 17, 2021 slaying. “I didn’t know if garnering more attention would hurt or help, and I wanted to help,” she says. “I feel like I tried that, and I don’t feel like it was helping. I feel like we weren’t being taken seriously.”
Now, she says, “anger is definitely moving me.” Over the last week, she’s urged fans and followers on social media to write letters to Memphis Police, Shelby County prosecutors and federal officials, demanding “the answers Dolph deserves.”
Jaye says her frustration reached a tipping point recently when she learned through the media – not prosecutors – that the Shelby County judge overseeing the murder case was forced to recuse himself by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. In an order filed Sept. 28, the appeals tribunal decided that Judge Lee V. Coffee created a “reasonable” appearance of impartiality when he yanked the phone and jail visitation privileges of alleged shooter Justin Johnson last year without giving Johnson’s defense team a chance to be heard on the matter.
Judge Coffee argued his actions were warranted because Johnson, who raps under the name Straight Drop, used a jail phone to release a rap song on YouTube in November 2022. According to the ruling obtained by Rolling Stone, Shelby County’s chief jailer said he never sought Judge Coffee’s assistance in the matter, and while jail officials restricted the visitation privileges of the civilian who helped Johnson make the video, no disciplinary action was taken against Johnson.
Jaye says it was difficult to learn and field questions about the judge’s ouster from the media who covered his announcement of removal Oct. 27 – a full month after the appeals court ruling. She says prosecutors didn’t reach to explain what happened until Oct. 30.
“All I’m asking for is that they regard the family to the point where we at least get information first, before anyone else does,” Jaye says. “If I continue to be silent, it might get to the place where all of my grievances will have to be acknowledged in an appeal process. That can’t happen. We’ve got to be assertive in this situation. We have to make sure we tackle issues as they come, and not turn a blind eye and then try to go back later to keep fighting this thing.”
Jaye says the delayed communication wasn’t the first issue for her. She had a private attorney reach out to law enforcement in March 2022 with her discovery that someone with the last name Johnson attempted to trademark Young Dolph’s name a month before his murder. She found it suspicious and wanted investigators to take a look.
“It was disregarded. I don’t feel it’s proper due diligence. I don’t feel that that’s fair to us. I feel like every rock and every stone needs to be turned over. Because every person who had a hand in this needs to be brought to the forefront,” she tells Rolling Stone.
“I’m taking this very personally,” she adds. “They specifically said, ‘There aren’t enough resources to explore that.’ They really want to take it as coincidence. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.” She worries, “How many other things are they dismissing?”
Jaye says she also has a problem with the $90,000 bond that allowed the alleged mastermind of the murder, Hernandez Govan, to be released from jail and placed on house arrest in May. “I understand that denying bond was out of the question. However, the low amount was something I felt they could have done a better job explaining to us,” Jaye says. “We said we were uncomfortable with that amount. But it was pretty much, ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re just letting you know. It wasn’t much of a discussion.” She believes more could have been done to voice the family’s dismay.
Looking ahead, she’s worried Judge Coffee’s recusal will further delay proceedings and push the planned March 11, 2024, trial date. The first major hearing with the new judge is set for Dec. 1. Jaye says her new approach is to “garner as much attention as possible” so the system doesn’t “drag this case out for years.”
“I need us to be heard. I need us to be seen. I don’t need us to be seen as just a rapper’s family, and, ‘Rappers die every day, and this is an ongoing thing, and we’re just going to put you all in a pile, a rapper pile, and we’ll get to you when we can,’” she says. She’s frustrated because two years later, she’s still searching for answers as to why Thornton was shot 22 times in the brazen, broad-daylight attack.
Co-defendants Justin Johnson, 25, and Cornelius Smith, 33, have pleaded not guilty to pulling up in a stolen Mercedes-Benz and opening fire on Thornton at Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies on Airways Boulevard in South Memphis. Govan, 44, also pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and denies arranging the slaying. The fourth man charged in the case was Johnson’s half-brother, Jermarcus Johnson. He pleaded guilty in June to three counts of being an accessory after the fact. Prosecutors say Jermarcus accepted a car and cellphone from Justin after the murder to help him escape Memphis amid a manhunt.
Jaye says she hopes a trial brings resolution. “I definitely want to know why, because there’s no justifiable reason for me,” she says of the murder. “I want to know why they wanted to take him from us and end his life. …I want them to say why they did what they did, each and every one of them. From there, I literally want them to have to live, so their conscience can really wreak havoc. And I really want to ask the question, ‘Was it worth it?’ The day (the perpetrators) are brought into the courthouse and sentenced, I would ask them, ‘Was it worth it? You ruined your life. You impacted your family. You impacted my family. You’ve taken his life. He wasn’t deserving of that. Do you feel you’re proud of yourself?’”
Reached by Rolling Stone Thursday, Paul Hagerman, the lead prosecutor on the case, said he understands the family’s “frustration,” but he’s adamant the Shelby County District Attorney’s office has worked diligently on the case.
“Our case is proceeding to trial as it should,” Hagerman said. “The family has been very well apprised of what the evidence is. They were invited, and many came and watched video associated with the crime. We’ve talked extensively about motives. We have to wait for the trial for those things to come out in the public, but the family has been well apprised of those things.”
He confirmed a meeting with Jaye has been set for later this month to discuss her concerns. “We’ve done the best we can,” Hagerman said. “We hope the fact that we have a new judge doesn’t slow us down.I don’t think it should. I hope the trial goes in March.”
Jaye says her top priority remains her kids. She plans to mark the second anniversary of Young Dolph’s death Friday by teaching them to turn the “tragic, hurtful day” into a day of service. She says the family foundation named for Dolph’s beloved grandmother, Ida Mae, is sponsoring events in Memphis, Atlanta and Chicago centered on giving back to the community. She and her children will be handing out toys.
“This is the Dolph Day of Service. It’s his holiday,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It’s a hard day, but the best way to make a hard day a good day is by doing something good. These are the things Dolph used to do. It’s the best way to honor him.”