TAMPA — Billy Bennett Adams III, a hip-hop artist who performs as Ace NH, is not guilty of murder for shooting two men in a Lutz recording studio, a Tampa jury decided Friday.
It took the panel of six men and six women about four hours to acquit Adams of two counts of first-degree murder. They apparently heeded arguments that Adams killed Trevon Albury and Daniel Thompson in self-defense.
In the courtroom, relatives and friends of the two dead men murmured as a clerk announced the first “not guilty.” They began to walk out and had cleared the courtroom by the time the clerk began questioning each juror, confirming their verdict.
In the hallway, a woman began to scream.
“Take him outside!” someone yelled.
Adams, 25, stood with his chin held high as the verdict was read. Deputies later escorted him and his attorneys out of the courthouse.
It was a stunning conclusion to a weeklong trial that Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella said was “at the very least a close call.”
A pivotal moment in the trial came Thursday when Adams, 25, took the witness stand and calmly explained why he killed Albury and Thompson.
Adams described how a late-night session in the small Lutz recording studio turned tense when he overheard the pair talk about robbing the studio’s owner, Joseph Meeks.
He said he saw Albury pull a gun and point it at Meeks, who sat unaware of the danger.
“I pulled out my gun and I shot Mr. Albury,” Adams said, “in fear for Mr. Meeks being shot or myself being shot.”
Thompson then reached for Adams’ gun, he said. Adams shot him twice in the face.
“I was in fear that he would have shot me or Mr. Meeks,” Adams said. “So I shot Mr. Thompson, back-to-back.”
In closing arguments Friday, Assistant State Attorney Melissa Grajales spoke at length about what the physical evidence said about how the shootings occurred. She noted the trajectory of the bullets that struck Albury in the back of his head and Thompson twice in his face — and the position of both their bodies. She suggested the evidence at the scene didn’t line up with Adams’ account of where he stood and what he did when he fired the fatal gunshots.
“This wasn’t self-defense,” Grajales said. “These were executions.”
Assistant Public Defender Carolyn Schlemmer noted Adams’ personal background — that he’d graduated from the University of South Florida with a management degree, that he was employed and lived with his stepmother and helped care for his disabled father and four younger brothers — to argue that it made no sense for him to commit such a crime.
“Why shoot these gentlemen and leave a witness?” Schlemmer said in closing arguments. “It’s all consistent with justifiable use of deadly force. Otherwise, this case makes no sense.”
Jurors gazed pensively at Adams as he sat on the witness stand Thursday, bespectacled, his long hair tied back, donning a gray suit jacket.
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He spoke softly as he explained that he’d made plans the evening of Nov. 19, 2020, with a friend and fellow rapper, Jimeile Lanier, who performs under the name Juh’Million, to record a song. They had trouble booking a session but eventually made a 10 p.m. appointment at Meeks Beatz Studios.
He knew Meeks, the proprietor, having previously recorded songs in his establishment, which operated out of a small shed behind Meeks’ parents’ home along N 23rd Street.
Lanier later met Adams there. Albury and Thompson showed up, too.
Adams said he didn’t know Albury. He’d met Thompson, but hadn’t known him very long. He knew that Thompson had been arrested about a month earlier on charges that included robbery with a firearm.
Albury and Thompson lingered in the mixing room — where Meeks sat at a computer — while Adams stepped into a booth to perform his part of the song. When he was done, he came out, and Lanier went into the booth to do his part.
Over the music, Adams said he could hear Albury and Thompson talking. He heard them discuss robbing the studio.
They started asking Meeks if they could stay after Adams finished his session. Meeks told them they couldn’t stay because he had another artist booked for another session.
“Something was off about the way they were acting,” Adams said. They kept glancing at each other. He believed they were intoxicated. Their behavior scared him, he said.
As Meeks worked at the computer, Albury stood directly behind him, Adams said. Thompson sat in a nearby chair.
“They were very insistent about staying at the studio,” he said.
Adams sent Meeks a message, trying to alert him, he said, but Meeks didn’t see it.
He sent Lanier a text message, too. He told him to leave quickly once he was done recording.
“Pull off fast,” he wrote. “I’ve got some business to handle.”
Lanier finished and left.
Standing in the doorway to the booth, Adams said, he saw the pair glance at each other before Thompson stood up. Adams moved forward, he said, stepping between them. He saw Albury pull a gun and point it at the back of Meeks’ head, he said.
Meeks remained at the computer, unaware of the danger, Adams said.”He had his finger on the trigger,” he said. “And I was in fear of Mr. Meeks being shot.”
Adams, who had a concealed weapons permit, pulled his own gun and fired.
Albury dropped the gun and fell to the floor. Investigators would later find a small .380 handgun beneath his body. He was later found to have a single gunshot wound to the back of his head.
An instant later, Adams said, Thompson reached toward him.
“He was trying to take my gun,” he said.
He shot Thompson twice.
Adams said he tried to explain to Meeks that they were about to rob him. Meeks, terrified, ran out of the studio.
Adams, too, stepped out of the studio, got in his car, and drove off.
“I didn’t feel safe there,” Adams said. “I was panicking.”
He headed first to his family’s New Tampa home, but passed without stopping, then headed south on Interstate 75 to his cousin’s home in Apollo Beach.
In cross-examination, Grajales peppered Adams for specifics. Where was he standing? How was Albury positioned? Was the gun still in the holster? Did Thompson actually touch him?
To many of her inquiries, Adams said simply he couldn’t remember.
“It happened very fast,” he said.