ATLANTA — After nearly 10 months of jury selection, one of the country’s highest-profile trials is finally set to begin this week in Atlanta.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has alleged Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug is the cofounder of a criminal street gang responsible for violent acts dating back a decade. Prosecutors say YSL – the acronym for the artist’s label, Young Stoner Life Records – also stands for Young Slime Life, an Atlanta-based street gang affiliated with the national Bloods gang.
The artist was charged alongside more than two dozen other people under the state’s expansive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – known as RICO. It’s the same law Willis used to indict former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants in August in connection with their alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
The blistering indictment naming Young Thug has turned national attention to the Atlanta courtroom where opening statements are due to begin Monday ahead of what could be a lengthy trial with a star-studded witness list. The case has also drawn fierce criticism over prosecutors’ use of rap lyrics as proof of the gang’s existence – a move some say is a racist violation of freedom of speech and artistic expression, and the latest instance of Black art being targeted.
Here’s what to know.
The rapper at the center of the case
Young Thug, who was born Jeffery Williams, was arrested in May 2022 and charged along with 27 other people, including rappers Gunna and Yak Gotti, in a sprawling indictment spanning nearly 90 pages. Several defendants took plea deals last December – including Gunna and Young Thug’s older brother – while others were severed from the case for a number of reasons, including representation issues.
Six defendants, including Young Thug, are still facing trial. He has remained in custody since his arrest.
In court documents, prosecutors argue the rapper is a violent gang leader and have alleged examples they say prove it: among them, he threatened to shoot a security guard in the face; he had flashed the gang’s alleged hand signal numerous times, including in social media posts; and he rapped about the criminal group. Prosecutors also alleged members of the gang had discussed getting Young Thug’s permission to kill rapper YFN Lucci, the alleged leader of a rival street gang.
Young Thug’s defense attorney has vehemently denied the accusations and pointed to a different side of the rapper’s life. In a bond hearing last year, one media executive and longtime friend of the artist testified Young Thug was “put here to change the people around him.”
“The Jeffery I know? The Jeffery I know gave me the clothes off his back,” music industry veteran Kevin Liles said.
A 15-year-old boy testified the artist tutored him, took him along on tours and urged him to stay away from crime and drugs. “I told him, my YSL means Young Successful Life because that’s something that he has created,” teen Corey Jackson told the judge.
The 32-year-old artist grew up in public housing in a south Atlanta neighborhood long known for its poverty and violence, and went on to become one of the industry’s most innovative and influential hip-hop artists, pushing not just musical boundaries but often cultural ones too – including in his decision to wear an iconic purple dress for the cover of his 2016 album, “Jeffery.”
That same year, he founded the YSL record label, which the rapper has used to propel close friends and family members to industry success. His tracks have landed him at the top of the charts multiple times, and he’s collaborated with artists including Camila Cabello, Travis Scott and Drake. “Business is Business,” the album he released from jail over the summer, shot to No.1 as soon as it dropped.
Young Thug’s “committed no crime whatsoever,” his attorney Brian Steel has told CNN. CNN reached out to Steel for comment ahead of opening statements.
“The court is hearing the prosecutors say that Mr. Williams is in charge of a criminal street gang and by his word, people can die,” Steel told CNN affiliate WXIA in an interview. “And that’s just not true.”
Young Thug is “wrongly charged on every single count,” Steel said, and described his client as “an amazing person, who comes from hunger and poverty and lack of opportunity.”
“He’s trying to get others out of poverty,” Steel said. “That’s his mission in life.”
Alleged gang members accused of murder, armed robbery, drug sales
Prosecutors say the YSL gang began in 2012 in the area of Cleveland Avenue, near where the rapper grew up.
“Me and the mayor and the police chief have talked about the fact that Cleveland in our community is referred to as ‘Bleveland,'” Willis said in a May 2022 news conference, indicating the area’s apparent association with the national Bloods gang. “It is somewhere where violence occurs, where they’re marking up territory, Blood territory. It’s horrible.”
To support their allegations of a street gang, prosecutors listed more than 180 acts in the indictment that the group of defendants allegedly committed, dating back to 2012, including murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, carjacking, drug sales, theft and possession of firearms during the commission of a felony.
Among their evidence, they also cited social media posts, hand signs, clothing tattoos and song lyrics.
Young Thug was initially indicted for conspiring to violate the RICO statute and participating in criminal street gang activity, and in a reindictment filed in August 2022, prosecutors charged him with additional counts related to gang activity as well as drug and firearms violations. The additional charges stemmed from a search warrant executed by authorities at the home the rapper was staying in, where drugs and firearms were allegedly found, Steel told WXIA.
Young Thug is charged with eight out of the 65 total counts listed for the defendants.
Among the more serious accusations against him is that he rented a car in 2015 that was used in the murder of a rival gang member. The fatal shooting was carried out three days later by YSL gang members, according to the reindictment.
Other defendants took plea deals
The other defendants still facing trial include Marquavius Huey, Deamonte Kendrick (known as Yak Gotti), Quamarvious Nichols, Rodalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwell.
Other defendants pleaded guilty to various charges in December 2022, prior to jury selection. Among them was Gunna, whose given name is Sergio Kitchens. The rapper entered an Alford plea on a single alleged count of conspiring to violate the RICO law. An Alford plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence, while recognizing it’s in their best interest not to go to trial, criminal defense attorney said Devin Rafus, who is not affiliated with the case.
Gunna was sentenced to five years in prison, with one year commuted to time served and the remaining four years suspended.
Young Thug’s older brother, Quantavious Grier – known as Unfoonk – pleaded guilty to one count of violating the RICO act and one count of theft by receiving stolen property, according to CNN affiliate WSB.
Trontavious Stephens, known as Tick, also pleaded guilty in December to a RICO charge as part of a negotiated deal, acknowledging he was one of YSL’s founding members and that associates of the group committed crimes.
Defendant Antonio Sledge, known as Mounk Tounk, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the RICO statute and a firearm charge. In court, he acknowledged YSL is a criminal enterprise and he committed several crimes on behalf and as part of the group.
He also acknowledged he received money from Young Thug to “lay low,” according to prosecutors, several days after the fatal shooting of the rival gang member.
Case uses rap lyrics as evidence
In the list of acts listed to prove the conspiracy of a criminal street gang, prosecutors used a number of rap lyrics and earlier this month Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville said he will allow 17 sets to be used in trial.
They include excerpts from Young Thug in which the rapper says: “Got a lot of followers, a perfect leader … I’m a boss, I call the shots”; “Come and enroll to the YSL school, and I swear I’m the principal”; and “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body.”
The inclusion of lyrics in the trial is a move that’s long been denounced by defense attorneys, freedom of speech advocates and artists as discriminatory.
“If you committed a crime and the state can prove it, then just prove it with the evidence that someone committed a crime. Why do you have to go digging into their artistic profiles?” Rafus said.
Experts say rap lyrics are the only form of art that has been repeatedly brought into courtrooms, most often as incriminating evidence against artists of color. The YSL indictment reignited that conversation and galvanized a movement against the practice.
In September 2022, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill limiting the use of rap lyrics in criminal court cases. The following month, a northern California judge vacated the murder convictions of two Black men, ruling prosecutors’ use of rap lyrics – created years before the killing – likely injected racial bias into the jury proceedings. And this year, Louisiana’s Democratic governor signed into law the “Restoring Artistic Protection Act,” which prohibits a defendant’s “creative or artistic expression” from being used as evidence.
But Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, has stood by her office’s use of lyrics as evident, telling reporters in 2022: “I believe in the First Amendment, it’s one of our most precious rights. However, the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using (lyrics) as evidence if it is such.”
The trial could take months and feature stars
The lengthy jury selection process and numerous court hearings already have spawned chaotic headlines, from an alleged in-court drug transaction to an attorney’s arrest to the judge’s punishment of a woman who traveled out of the country and did not return for jury service.
Twelve jurors and six alternates were selected. The jury panel includes six Black women, two Black men, one White woman, one White man, one Hispanic woman and another woman, WSB reported.
The trial is expected to take months and could feature a star-studded list of witnesses. A list of those who could potentially take the stand submitted by prosecutors earlier this year included rapper YFN Lucci and rapper Lil Wayne, while Young Thug’s list of potential witnesses included Killer Mike.
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