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Young Thug and the YSL RICO trial, explained


Young Thug. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images.


 

Young Thug is at a tipping point, maybe a permanent one — for his own music career and for Young Stoner Life, the label he built from the ground up in his hometown of Atlanta. In the spring of 2022, the rapper — full name Jeffrey Lamar Williams — was charged alongside 27 of his alleged affiliates with 56 violations of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. He’s been cast by prosecutors as the criminal mastermind of Young Slime Life, a gang prosecutors claim was active from 2012. It was a shocking development for fans of Thug, a hugely popular artist and one of the most influential rappers of his generation. He faces up to 40 years in prison.

Thug has been in Cobb County Jail since May of last year. He spent his first eight months there awaiting the proposed January 9 start date of his court proceedings, and has remained there for the past eight while Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville continues to conduct extensive juror search that’s set to make the YSL trial the longest in Georgia history.

Steering the case against Thug and his YSL co-defendants is Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. Elected in 2020, Willis has repeatedly voiced her intention to address her district’s crime rate. “It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is,” she said at a press conference announcing the YSL Rico case. “If you come to Fulton County, Georgia, 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.”

To help build the case against YSL as a criminal enterprise, the indictment lists 182 examples of the defendants engaging in alleged gang activity. Social media posts and prison calls are cited alongside song lyrics and appearances in music videos, making the YSL RICO case a flashpoint in the ongoing controversy over rap lyrics being used in criminal cases against artists. Even though the trial has yet to commence, its implications have shaken the music industry, and the eventual verdict will have a similarly seismic effect, no matter where the jury lands. It’s a complicated situation with a lot of twists, and we’ve explained the key points here. For a more thorough rundown of all of the events leading up to and during the trial so far, check out The FADER’s complete YSL RICO timeline here.

When were the charges filed against Young Thug and YSL?

The RICO indictment of Thug and Young Slime Life was filed on May 9, 2022 in the Fulton County Superior Court (Fulton County houses most of the city of Atlanta). That same day, Thug was taken into custody from his home and booked in the Fulton County Jail (he was transferred to Cobb County shortly thereafter). A search of his home yielded evidence that led to seven additional felony charges.

What is Young Thug specifically charged with?

Thug was only named in counts one (Conspiracy to Violate RICO) and 56 (Participation in Criminal Street Gang Activity) of the May 2022 indictment. Count 56 alleges that, between May 2018 and May 2022, he occupied a position of leadership within YSL, and was either directly or indirectly involved in acts of murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, theft, and sale of controlled substances, among others.

He was later reindicted on six new counts stemming partially from the search of his home conducted after his initial arrest. These include violations of Georgia’s Controlled Substances Act and possession of fully automatic weapons. Per Georgia RICO law, each of these counts carries an additional 20-year maximum sentence, meaning Thug could face life in prison if found guilty of them all.

What does the indictment actually say?

The original 88-page document names 28 men, including Young Thug and Young Stoner Life’s star signee, Gunna — as well as fellow YSL rappers Yak Gotti and Unfoonk (Thug’s older brother) — as members of Young Slime Life, a “criminal street gang” with ties to the Bloods. The indictment variously accuses the defendants of 56 felony counts, but all of them are charged with Conspiracy to Violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

The indictment alleges that the defendants cumulatively committed 182 “overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy,” including murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, theft, drug dealing, and carjacking. Thug is alleged to have committed 36 of these “overt acts” including “terroristic threats” and possession of controlled substances with the intent to distribute. Though the prosecution has framed him as the criminal mastermind behind YSL, he isn’t directly charged with any violent crimes.

What is the RICO Act?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was signed into federal law in 1970 as a way to prosecute organized crime (it’s how they caught Lefty Ruggiero and other mafia dons during the ’80s and ’90s) and corporate malfeasance. That said, any person deemed to be involved in a pattern of racketeering or related crimes can be charged with violating the act. Other rappers who have been indicted on RICO charges include Kay Flock, Casanova, and Fetty Wap.

Thirty-three states, including Georgia, have their own versions of RICO. Georgia’s law allows the state to define racketeering more broadly than federal prosecutors can and only requires evidence of a single “overt act” to tie a defendant to the conspiracy (the federal RICO Act requires two).

What are “overt acts”?

“Overt acts” are a unique feature of RICO cases. They are not charges in and of themselves, but they’re used by the prosecution to link defendants with the broader conspiracy outlined in the indictment.

Thug’s alleged “overt acts” include lyrics from 10 songs — including one misattributed to Thug and another that does not currently exist online — and the contents of 11 social media posts, as well as some of the more serious allegations we discussed earlier. Five of the acts are related to a September 24, 2017 traffic stop in which the vehicle Thug was traveling in (along with Gunna) was found to contain controlled substances and allegedly stolen firearms. Though both Thug and Gunna were charged with felonies, neither of them has been convicted of any crime stemming from the incident.

Gunna was only indicted on the overarching conspiracy count but was also implicated in 10 overt acts. Of these, five stemmed from the above September 2017 stop, with another related to a separate, May 2018 incident in which a car said to be traveling in his and Thug’s convoy was found to contain unlicensed, fully automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines. The other four acts are song lyrics and a social media post. See The FADER’s timeline of Young Thug’s RICO trial for a more complete rundown of which songs have been deemed “overt acts.”

Is there a difference between Young Slime Life and Young Stoner Life?

Young Slime Life is the unofficial Atlanta collective that Thug started around 2012, per the prosecution’s timeline, and is alleged to be a “criminal street gang” with ties to the Bloods. Young Stoner Life is Thug’s record label, an imprint of 300 Entertainment founded in 2016. Five of the artists listed on Young Stoner Life’s website as being signed to the label — Thug, Gunna, Lil Duke, Yak Gotti, and Unfoonk — are named by the state of Georgia as members of Young Slime Life in the YSL RICO indictment. DA Willis and her co-prosecutors allege that Thug and his Young Slime Life affiliates used Young Stoner Life Records as a legitimate cover-up for their criminal activities.

Who is Fani Willis?

Fani Willis is the current Fulton County District Attorney, who unseated six-time incumbent Paul Howard in a historic sweep in 2020. In 2015, Willis — then an assistant DA — was one of the lead prosecutors in the RICO trial of 12 Atlanta Public School teachers accused and eventually convicted of helping students cheat on standardized tests.

Willis has also worked as a defense attorney. In 2019, during a brief sabbatical from the DA’s office, she represented Young Thug’s former associate YSL Mondo in an aggravated assault case, helping him avoid prison time. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Mondo asserted that Willis was a different person when the cameras weren’t rolling: “I done had auntie-to-nephew, mother-to-son type of talks with her,” he said. “I know this not her character… It’s politics behind this shit. It’s other people that’s behind her pulling strings.”

Last month, Donald Trump, who has also been indicted on Georgia RICO charges due to his attempts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results, used Mondo’s comments to fabricate a story about a romantic affair between Willis and Mondo. In another bizarre twist, Trump has hired Steve Sadow, the attorney who brokered Gunna’s plea deal last December, to join his defense team.

If Gunna pleaded guilty, why isn’t he being sentenced?

When Gunna was released on bond, he took what’s called an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to plead guilty while personally maintaining their innocence. The conditions of his deal include a four-year suspended prison sentence (which will likely not be enforced unless Judge Glanville feels Gunna has violated the terms of his agreement), plus time served (one year) and 500 hours of community service. In return, he claims, he will not be compelled to provide any further information to the prosecutors or aid in their investigation.

Did Gunna “snitch” on Young Thug?

Leaked court footage of Gunna accepting his plea deal appears to show him confirming Willis’s assertion that “YSL is a music label and a gang, and… members and associates of YSL have committed crimes in furtherance of the gang.” In the video, he also appears to confirm the presence of hydrocodone, methamphetamine, and a firearm in the vehicle in which he and Thug were traveling on September 24, 2017, and affirms that the gun and drugs were not his own. Finally, he appears to accept the following statement as his own: “I recognize, accept, and deeply regret that my talent and music indirectly furthered YSL the gang to the detriment of my community. YSL as a gang must end.” Based on these acknowledgments, Gunna has been accused of “snitching” on Thug and his other former co-defendants.

Since his release from prison, Gunna has rejected this portrayal of his plea deal, claiming he has not given any information to the prosecutors and will not be aiding in their investigation.
addressing the allegations in his June single “bread & butter”: “Never fucked a n***a, always stayed solid,” he raps, before adding, “Lawyers and the DA did some sneaky shit, I fell for it / On my Ps and Qs because, this time, I be prepared for it,” implying that his defense team misled him into what his accusers in the court of public opinion see as his most damning admissions.

Why is it taking so long to find a jury?

By now, the court has reviewed more than 2,000 potential jurors, with no firm end to the selection process in sight. Part of that is due to Williams himself: As a polarizing public figure, it’s hard to find 12 Atlantans without strong feelings about Young Thug’s music or persona. The trial also deals with multiple cultural flashpoints — rap music, gang activity, the criminalization of young Black men — that could further bias jurors.

To avoid a biased jury, Judge Glainville and the Fulton County Superior Court is using a 250-question screening test to weed out jurors with potential prejudice or too much preexisting knowledge of the case. Questions made publicly available include: “Have you ever heard of the record label YSL — Young Stoner Life?,” and, “Do you have an opinion about a person who has dreadlocks or tattoos?”

Another barrier to finding jurors has been the trial’s projected duration of six to nine months. Anyone summoned for jury duty in Georgia has the opportunity to file a hardship claim if work or childcare obligations prevent them from committing the necessary time to serve on the jury. Judge Glainville spent more than six months reviewing hundreds of hardship applications and began individual juror examinations in late July.

The selection process has been furthered delayed by several courtroom incidents, including an alleged “hand-to-hand drug exchange” between Thug and his co-defendant Kahlieff Adams, a prospective juror’s detainment after being caught recording court proceedings, and a defense attorney’s arrest after he was found to be carrying “contraband” (prescription drugs) into the courtroom.

Why has Young Thug been denied bond four times?

The first time Thug was denied bail was by a magistrate court judge, based on the then-unindicted felony charges filed against him after the search of his home that followed his arrest. Judge Glanville has since rejected appeals from Williams’s defense three more times. He says that the rappers’ influence and resources pose risks that he could flee the country or intimidate witnesses who are set to testify against YSL.

The indictment started with 28 defendants. Why are there only eight left?

In addition to Gunna, seven other defendants have taken plea deals. In January of this year, six more were severed from the trial — four lacking legal representation and two remaining at large. Another six have had their cases severed from the trial during jury selection. Eight defendants remain, including Thug himself.

Will the prosecution be able to use Thug’s lyrics as evidence in court?

Over the past few years, several bills to limit the admissibility of rap lyrics in court have been introduced in various state legislatures. New York’s “Rap Music on Trial” bill passed through the State Senate but has seemingly stalled out on the State Assembly floor. In August of last year, California passed their own version of the act. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2022 and reintroduced this past April after stagnating at the subcommittee level.

Georgia, on the other hand, hasn’t introduced a Rap on Trial bill. Fani Willis says she plans to use Young Thug’s lyrics as evidence in the case: “People can continue to be angry about it, [but] I have some legal advice: Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used – or, at least, get out of my county.”

In June of last year, Atlantic Records COO Julie Greenwald and 300 Entertainment circulated a petition calling for state and federal legislators to enact bills restricting the use of rap lyrics as evidence of crimes nationwide. “In courtrooms across America, Black creativity and artistry is being criminalized,” they wrote. “With increasing and troubling frequency, prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions, just like they’re doing in [Thug’s] case.”

What’s next?

Before the court proceedings can resume, a jury needs to be selected. Once that happens, the remaining eight YSL members — including Thug, still in jail as of September 11, 2023 — will be tried, with the expectation that sentences won’t be handed down until next year.