Judge in Young Dolph murder case removes himself based on appeals court order

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A judge removed himself from the Young Dolph murder case Friday after he was ordered to do so by a Tennessee appeals court, which questioned whether he could be impartial to a man charged with killing the rapper two years ago.

Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Lee Coffee asked the court clerk to assign a new judge in the high-profile case. The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued its order Sept. 28 after Coffee refused to step down at the request of the lawyer for Justin Johnson, who is charged with two other men in the fatal shooting of Young Dolph in November 2021.

The lawyer, Luke Evans, had argued that Coffee could not be impartial after the judge failed to inform him about an order limiting Johnson’s ability to communicate with people outside the jail other than Evans.

Johnson and Cornelius Smith have pleaded not guilty in the killing of Young Dolph, whose real name was Adolph Thornton Jr. The rapper, producer and independent music label owner was gunned down in a daylight ambush at a Memphis bakery, where he was buying cookies while back in is hometown to visit a sick relative and hand out Thanksgiving turkeys.

Coffee had set a March 11 trial date for Johnson and Smith, but it was not immediately clear how Coffee's recusal would affect that.

A third man, Hernandez Govan, has pleaded not guilty to organizing the killing, which shook Memphis and the entertainment world.

Evans asked for Coffee’s recusal after the judge restricted Johnson’s visitation privileges and did not allow Johnson to communicate by phone or in writing with anyone outside the jail but his lawyer, including family. Johnson was accused of using a phone call from jail to record a rap song, media outlets reported.

The judge didn't contact the defense or hold a hearing before issuing the order, which Evans called “punitive.”

Coffee said he issued the order for Johnson’s safety and he denied the accusations that he was not being impartial. Coffee said he had not made any judgments about Johnson’s guilt or innocence.

The judge also discussed the issue of jail recordings and their release with a law enforcement official in a phone call that the appeals court said was improper because it was not in the presence of Johnson or his lawyer. Coffee said he made the call “in court, on the bench, with another case before the Court,” according to the appeal ruling.

Even though the conversation “did not bear upon the alleged facts of the charges against the Defendant, it would appear to a reasonable person that Judge Coffee has a prejudice” directed at Johnson, the court said.

The appeals court reversed Coffee's denial of the recusal motion and said that a new judge should be reassigned.

Evans said Friday that he is pleased with the ruling and Johnson is looking forward to having his day in court.