Atlanta’s favorite reality show, the Young Thug trial, indefinitely halted (2024)

ATLANTA — A defendant stabbed. A star witness jailed for refusing to testify. Screaming matches between the attorneys and the judge. An 18-month trial with no end in sight. And at the defense table, a renowned Grammy Award-winning hip-hop star who stands accused of being the leader of a murderous street gang.

The criminal racketeering case against Young Thug was already known for its near-daily drama long before the rapper’s lead attorney, Brian Steel, was found in criminal contempt last month and ordered to serve 20 days in jail.

“This is crazy! This is like communist Russia!” Steel complained in a courtroom rant days after his contempt charge, which followed his accusation that judge and prosecutors secretly met with and pressured a key witness to testify.

On Monday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville abruptly halted the trial indefinitely until another judge reviews motions from Young Thug and others who have accused the judge of misconduct and want him recused from the case. That judge has ordered prosecutors to file a response by Monday. It’s unknown when, or if, the case will resume.

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What to know about Young Thug’s trial
  • After 18 months of chaos, Young Thug’s YSL trial on RICO charges has been indefinitely halted amid misconduct claims.
  • Why is Young Thug on trial? The rapper is accused of running a violent gang under the guise of a record label.
  • Young Thug’s attorney was held in contempt after accusing the judge and prosecutors of an improper meeting with a witness.

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Already, the case had been the longest-running criminal trial in Georgia history. Even before the latest turmoil, critics questioned Glanville’s handling of the high-profile case, including his decision to allow jury selection to drag on for 10 months, as well as weeks-long breaks in testimony and other delays that could push the trial well into, if not beyond, 2025.

Several defendants, including Young Thug, have sought mistrials, which the judge denied.

Prosecutors appeared stunned by the judge’s decision to recess the high-stakes case led by Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D). She has faced criticism for her embrace of Georgia’s anti-racketeering statute to bring sweeping multi-defendant cases, with critics claiming such complicated cases are a drain on an already overwhelmed court system.

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The Young Thug trial is widely viewed as a case study of how another one of Willis’s high-profile cases might play out if it ever makes it to trial: the racketeering prosecution of former president Donald Trump and more than a dozen allies who are charged with criminally conspiring to try to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia. Both proceedings feature a celebrity defendant and an ensemble cast of aggressive Atlanta defense attorneys working in tandem.

But the wild twists and turns in the trial of Young Thug, whose legal name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, have taken on a particular level of fascination. The proceedings, which are live-streamed on the YouTube pages of Atlanta television stations, have attracted thousands of daily viewers drawn in by what often feels like a reality television show.

At one point this spring, Young Thug looked back at them, staring directly into the courtroom camera with a look of exasperation amid the chaos. Clips of the moment quickly went viral.

“Looked straight into the camera like an episode of ‘The Office,’” declared ThuggerDaily, one of several social media accounts that offer daily coverage of the trial.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University who has been closely tracking the Trump case, said he began watching the Young Thug trial to gauge how a complex RICO case — involving the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — with multiple defendants might play out.

“I wanted to get a sense of the rhythm,” Kreis said. “But what went from kind of a casual peeking-in to understand a Georgia RICO case has become a soap opera that I am fully invested in.”

The trial has deep political implications for Willis, who is overwhelmingly favored to win her bid for a second term as the county’s top prosecutor in November but has faced lingering questions about her leadership and judgment after she was accused of an improper relationship with the former lead prosecutor on the Trump case.

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The 2020 election interference case has been at a standstill for months, as Trump and others appeal a judge’s ruling allowing Willis to continue prosecuting that case. In recent weeks, Trump’s allies have seized on the Young Thug case to attack Willis — even as they have stopped short of defending the rapper and his alleged accomplices, who stand accused of numerous criminal acts including murder and armed robbery. Courtney Kramer, a Republican lawyer and former Trump White House intern who is challenging Willis this fall, has described the trial as a waste of taxpayer money.

The chaos of the Young Thug trial could have a lasting impact on public support for cases that employ Georgia’s expansive RICO law or even lead to the statute being weakened, as some Republicans have threatened.

“There’s nothing very attractive about the criminal justice system when viewed through the lens of this trial,” said Don Samuel, a veteran Atlanta criminal defense attorney who represents the rapper Gunna, a Young Thug protégé who was jailed for seven months before entering an Alford plea, allowing him to plead guilty to a RICO charge while also maintaining his innocence. “The whole thing is out of control.”

A gang leader — or an artist posing as one?

The indictment of Young Thug and 27 alleged associates in May 2022 sent shock waves through Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, one of the most vibrant in the country. The rapper was taken into custody at his home in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood, filmed by a local television station as police escorted him down a driveway in a white tank top, his hands cuffed behind his back.

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By then, Young Thug was a sensation beyond his hometown of Atlanta, with his mumble-like delivery and eccentric flow crowning him one of hip-hop’s most unique innovators over his decade-plus career. With three chart-topping albums, he was known for transcending genre, collaborating with stars well beyond the rap world and spawning a legion of imitators, with a gender-busting fashion sense that had made him a mainstay in the pages of Vogue.

But Fulton County prosecutors have alleged there was a darker side to the now-32-year-old rapper, casting him as a ruthless leader of a savage street gang known as Young Slime Life, or YSL, at the center of an explosion of violence across Atlanta over the past decade.

Willis, a longtime prosecutor who was elected district attorney in 2020, had been in office for just over a year when she announced charges against a cultural icon of the city. But as she would later do with Trump, Willis insisted she was not cowed by Young Thug’s status.

“It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is,” Willis declared. “If you come to Fulton County, Georgia, and you commit crimes, and certainly if those crimes are in furtherance of a street gang, then you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office, and we are going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”

The initial 56-count indictment charged Young Thug on just two counts: participation in criminal street gang activity and conspiring to violate Georgia’s anti-racketeering law as the alleged leader of YSL. In August 2022, he was indicted on six additional drug and weapons charges including possession of an illegal machine gun.

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Young Thug is standing trial with five others after a majority of the defendants reached plea deals or had their cases severed.

Though he was not charged individually, Young Thug was implicated in more than a dozen alleged acts in furtherance of the gang conspiracy. Among other things, prosecutors have alleged he rented the car used in the 2015 murder of a rival gang leader, Donovan Thomas, and later that year threatened to shoot an Atlanta-area mall security guard in the face. The indictment also claims alleged YSL members discussed getting his permission to kill the rapper YFN Lucci, the alleged leader of a rival street gang, a plot that was never carried out.

In a controversial move, prosecutors have cited Young Thug’s social media posts and lyrics to bolster their claims that he is a gang leader, accusing him of flashing the gang’s alleged hand sign and rapping about YSL’s alleged crimes.

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A history of prosecuting rap lyrics

When Bay Area rapper Mac Dre was tried for conspiracy to rob a bank in the early ’90s, lines from his song “Punk Police” were used at trial: “They say some banks was robbed and I fit the description / But that’s drama, so save it for your mama / I’m not criminal minded, punk police, I’m a / dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer.” The lyrics were not central to the prosecution’s argument, according to KQED. Dre was found guilty and spent four years in prison.

Song lyrics by White rapper Eminem, whose 2000 song “Kill You” featured a fictional but vividly detailed description of him murdering his ex-wife Kim, were cited in a congressional hearing about the record industry’s labeling practices. In 2014, the Supreme Court quoted lyrics to Eminem’s song “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” in the Elonis vs. United States case, which centered on whether lyrics are protected by freedom of speech.

The case most similar to Young Thug’s might be the 2019 trial of influential Los Angeles rapper Drakeo the Ruler, who was charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection to the death of a 24-year-old man, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Like Thug, Drakeo spent years behind bars as the case unfolded. Though he was acquitted in July 2019 and avoided a life sentence, the Los Angeles district attorney refiled charges one month later for criminal gang conspiracy and the shooting of a motor vehicle, arguing that his crew, known as the Stinc Team, was a gang, according to reports.

The prosecutors used Drakeo’s lyrics, rap videos and music as evidence of a conspiracy by his crew, weaving music videos and lyrics into the trial. He was released from jail in November 2020 after he accepted a plea deal from the district attorney’s office for the shooting charge.

Some activists argued that the case was an example of racism since it policed Black men for creativity.

Prosecutors considered using a line from Snoop Dogg’s song “Murder Was the Case” — “murder, murder was the case that they gave me” — when he was charged with murder in the 1990s. But the lyrics ultimately weren’t used as evidence at trial, which ended with Snoop’s acquittal.

“There may be that one case where the subject of the lyrics really touch on the circ*mstances of what happened, provide sort of a motive or explains kind of the motive of what happened,” said Edward Nison, a prosecutor on the Snoop trial who now is assistant head deputy for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. But lyrics “can’t be your primary evidence,” he added. “If that’s your primary evidence, it sounds like you have a weak case to begin with.”

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The rapper, who has been held without bail since his arrest more than two years ago, has pleaded not guilty to all counts. Steel, his attorney, has accused prosecutors of attacking Black art and wrongly targeting his client based on a fictional persona aimed at selling records.

Steel has claimed YSL stands for Young Stoner Life and is nothing more than a record label. He has described his client as a “studio gangster,” not a real one, and said his stage name, Thug, stands for “Truly Humble Under God” — a nod to his client’s impoverished upbringing in the violent projects of South Atlanta.

“What is happening in this case is wrong,” Steel said last year.

Prosecutors allege the persona is real, not art. During opening statements, lead prosecutor Adriane Love read lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Law of the Jungle.”

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“For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” Love recited. The members and associates of YSL, Love told the jury, “moved like a pack, with the defendant Jeffery Williams as its head.”

Days later, the courtroom camera panned to Young Thug seated at his front-row defense table. He wore a sweater emblazoned with a cartoon wolf.

Historically long trial quickly went ‘off the rails’

Almost immediately, the case was chaotic and unlike anything ever seen in a city that has been no stranger to headline-grabbing trials.

The case was assigned to Glanville, a 29-year veteran of the Fulton County courts who was appointed in late 2022 as chief of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. A brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve, Glanville also serves as chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals — a military background that some close to the case believed would instill needed discipline in a complicated proceeding.

But from the start there were logistical problems, including finding a courtroom big enough to fit the six defendants and their attorneys.

Starting in January 2023, Glanville summoned more than 2,000 Fulton County residents as he sought to impanel a jury. The process was expected to take several weeks, but it ultimately stretched well into the fall, prompting private complaints among attorneys on both sides that Glanville was being too lenient about excusing potential jurors who didn’t want their lives disrupted.

“That was the first clue that this was going off the rails,” said Chris Timmons, a former Atlanta-area prosecutor who has tried numerous RICO cases. “Ten months to seat a jury?”

Just days into jury selection, a co-defendant was seen walking up to Young Thug and handing him what prosecutors later said was a Percocet pill. Another co-defendant later was searched by deputies who found bags of marijuana sewn into his underwear. A defense attorney was arrested the next day when he tried to enter the courtroom with his prescription pills. Later, a Fulton County sheriff’s deputy assigned to courtroom security was fired, arrested and charged with passing contraband to a co-defendant with whom she was accused of having an inappropriate relationship.

Opening statements finally began Nov. 27, but in early December the trial was halted after co-defendant Shannon Stillwell was stabbed multiple times by another inmate at the Fulton County Jail. Amid speculation the attack could be related to the trial, Glanville ordered Stillwell, upon his release from the hospital, to be “kept separate from the other defendants in this case at all times.”

Glanville postponed proceedings until early 2024, and when it resumed, the case continued to move at a glacial pace. At least two witnesses have been jailed, and another admitted he was “high” on the stand.

Proceedings rarely started on time, and five-to-10-minute breaks throughout the day often stretch to a half-hour or more. In April, Glanville threatened to hold court on the weekends.

“If you don’t want your Saturday and Sunday sucked up, I think we need to work a little harder,” Glanville warned the attorneys. But he has not followed through.

By June, more than seven months after opening statements, prosecutors were not yet halfway through their list of more than 200 witnesses. Jurors heard testimony on roughly half of the trial’s first 100 days, and they haven’t been in court since June 17.

The pace slowed even further amid lingering questions about the June 10 meeting between Glanville, prosecutors and Kenneth Copeland, an associate of Young Thug and a star witness who was jailed when he refused to testify.

Citing an unnamed source, Steel alleged that Glanville and prosecutors pressured Copeland to testify. According to a transcript of the meeting made public Monday, both prosecutors and the judge repeatedly warned Copeland that because he was granted immunity, he would remain jailed until the end of the case if he declined to answer questions. The transcript offered no clarity on whether Glanville crossed a line that could lead to his recusal. The judge has called the meeting “proper” and said that no parties gained “procedural, substantive, or tactical advantages.”

When first confronted about the meeting, Glanville demanded to know who told Steel about it, arguing the leak violated attorney-client privilege and the privacy of his chambers. When Steel refused to say, the judge held the attorney in criminal contempt and sentenced him to 20 days in jail to be served on the weekends — a sentence the Georgia Supreme Court later stayed as Steel appeals.

As Steel prepared for sheriff’s deputies to escort him out of the courtroom, he calmly removed his jacket and tie.

The events have stunned Atlanta’s legal community, including those who know Glanville and have been surprised by how he has handled the case. More than a dozen criminal-defense lawyers showed up in support of Steel shortly after he was held in contempt — including Ashleigh Merchant, an Atlanta-area attorney who chairs the state’s association of criminal-defense attorneys and has taken on Steel’s contempt case.

Merchant, who also represents one of Trump’s co-defendants, made national headlines this year when she accused Willis of having an improper romantic relationship with a special prosecutor on the election case.

Her sudden appearance in the Young Thug courtroom had the feel of a crossover television event, as she challenged Glanville on his handling of the contempt filing. When Glanville pressed Merchant on “current” case law involving contempt charges against attorneys, she told him there was none. “Contempt of attorneys is not a common proceeding,” she said.

On Monday, Glanville was met with a stunned silence as he announced the trial would recess until another judge determines if he can move forward. A prosecutor pressed the judge on when the issue might be taken up, questioning the impact on the jury.

“I don’t know,” Glanville replied. “I don’t have anything to do with that.”

The courtroom camera panned the room. At the defense table sat Young Thug, reclined in his chair, hands in his lap, his eyes closed.

Atlanta’s favorite reality show, the Young Thug trial, indefinitely halted (2024)
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