BYRAM, N.J. — A former Fort Drum soldier facing life in prison for the kidnapping and killing of another soldier will represent himself when his trial begins this fall.
Sussex County Superior Court Judge Michael C. Gaus granted Jamaal Mellish’s request to represent himself, even though the soldier has no legal experience.
“I realize the consequences that I face in terms of life imprisonment and also realize that no one is willing to fight more than myself,” Mellish said, according to a court transcript from a hearing in February.
Mellish and his former girlfriend’s brother, Hannan Aiken, 17, are accused of kidnapping and killing Cpl. Hayden Harris after a dispute the two soldiers had over swapping their vehicles in December 2020.
Mellish will be back in court on July 19 for what is called a final case disposition conference.
Attorney Joel Harris has been appointed Mellish’s standby counsel, and will be on hand to answer questions and advise on legal strategy.
Mellish can make motions, argue points of law, question witnesses and handle opening statements and closing summations.
He’s already made some motions since taking over the trial for himself.
Mr. Harris expects Mellish, who is from Brooklyn, will go to trial in September or October.
One of the main issues still to be decided at the July 19 conference is whether the two defendants will go to trial separately.
In his statement to police, Aiken provided information about Mellish’s alleged involvement in the murder, Mr. Harris said.
“It would be difficult” to “sanitize” the case if the statement comes up while both men are being tried together, he said.
The judge is expected to rule on motions to suppress evidence and on Mellish’s Miranda rights before the July 19 hearing, Mr. Harris said.
Aiken, who was 16 at the time of the murder, is being tried as an adult. Mellish remains behind bars in a New Jersey correctional facility.
They are accused of forcing Cpl. Harris at gunpoint to ride in the backseat of the vehicle for more than four hours to Byram Township, New Jersey, and then shooting him in the head. His body was found partially covered by snow next to a cul-de-sac in the northern New Jersey township.
On Nov. 4, a Sussex County grand jury returned a superseding 11-count indictment against both Aiken and Mellish on charges of murder, kidnapping, carjacking, weapons possession and hindering the investigation.
In April, the teen was transferred from the Morris County Juvenile Detention Facility on a court order and sent to the Morris County jail, according to corrections officials.
Judge Gaus ordered that Aiken be removed from the juvenile facility following a series of “disruptions” and transferred to the adult facility, Mr. Harris said.
Aiken is separated from the adult population at the jail, Mr. Harris said.
Mellish agreed to swap his Chevrolet Silverado for Harris’s Ford Mustang in July 2020, months before the corporal was murdered on Dec. 17, according to the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office.
But Cpl. Harris was dissatisfied with the circumstances of the transaction and wanted his Mustang back, which angered Mellish, prosecutors have said.
Cpl. Harris was having trouble getting the pickup truck registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The two soldiers allegedly agreed to return the vehicles back to each other. They met in a Glen Park parking lot, where Mellish ordered Cpl. Harris in the backseat of the Silverado.
At that point, however, Mellish no longer owned the Mustang. He had sold the sports car several months before the killing.
Fort Drum reported Cpl. Harris missing on Dec. 17 and his body was discovered the next day. Aiken and Mellish were apprehended by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office after a deputy stopped them in the Silverado on Arsenal Street in Watertown.
The teen allegedly held Cpl. Harris at gunpoint in the backseat while Mellish drove the corporal’s pickup to New Jersey, prosecutors have said.
Prosecutors have video evidence from a cell phone showing Aiken brandishing a handgun just hours before meeting up with Mellish.
The teen gave a statement to police pointing out that Mellish was the killer, police said last summer.
Sahil Kabse, an assistant prosecutor in Sussex County prosecuting the case, is on vacation and was unavailable for comment.