Jury selection proves to be difficult for the YSL trial

Rapper and Grammy winner Young Thug, whose given name is Jeffery Williams, was charged last year in a sprawling indictment that accused him and more than two dozen others of conspiring to violate Georgia's anti-racketeering law. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Jury selection is moving slowly in the Fulton County criminal case against Atlanta rapper Young Thug and what prosecutors say is a street gang called Young Slime Life. Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, is one of 14 defendants in the trial.

In the original indictment from May 2022, prosecutors allege that 28 people were involved in a conspiracy to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, or RICO law. The indictment included 54 other charges and detailed 182 acts that prosecutors say YSL committed.

Prosecutors accuse Young Thug of co-founding the YSL gang and identify him as its leader. Young Thug has a popular music label with the same initials, Young Stoner Life, that some of the accused are affiliated with.

Charlie Bailey, a former senior assistant District Attorney for Fulton County, says that the number of defendants and alleged crimes will prolong the length of the trial. The trial is expected to last six to nine months.

“If you’re talking about a number of different incidents, then naturally the telling of that through witnesses and written evidence, documents and exhibits, it’s just going to take longer,” Bailey says.

The jury selection process

The expected length of the trial is why presiding Judge Ural Glanville has summoned nearly 1,000 people just to find 12 jurors and several alternates that can serve. 614 people were summoned in early January, and another 300 will appear on Feb. 24.

There are two reasons that people may be struck from the jury pool: cause or hardship. If a potential juror is struck for cause, that means they cannot be expected to be fair and impartial for the trial. If they are struck for hardship, that means serving on a jury would create hardship in that individual’s life, and therefore, they should be excused.

Many of the hardship claims made by jurors are due to financial reasons. Serving on the jury could mean nine months of not working. It’s seemingly not common for an employer to pay an employee while they’re doing jury duty for several months.

Judge Glanville is looking at each hardship claim individually. Those claiming financial hardships due to work are ordered to present their employer’s jury duty policy. Anyone whose employer is not willing to pay them indefinitely during the trial has been excused.

Others are claiming hardship for medical reasons, or because they’re caretakers of children or older adults, among a litany of other things. Where proof of hardships is necessary, the judge is ordering those individuals to return to court with proper documentation — further prolonging the process.

“I do believe that, regardless of who’s excused for hardship or cause, there’ll be a diverse pool of folks from which the prosecutors and the defense can strike jurors based on what they think they need,” Bailey says.

Striking people from the jury pool for cause is a more complex process that involves prosecutors and defense attorneys. The goal is to eliminate people from the jury pool who have existing biases or opinions that they aren’t willing to set aside for the trial.

According to 11Alive, potential jurors have filled out a 250-question questionnaire that surveyed their opinions on rap music, law enforcement, neck tattoos and more.

Bailey says that if a potential juror has heard of Young Thug, it’s not enough on its own for them to be struck from the jury pool.

“I would not expect … that just sheer knowledge of someone would be enough, because then it would be almost impossible to try anybody with any notoriety at all,” he says.

Lawyers on both sides aim to strike people from the jury pool that could be swayed by opposing arguments. For example, prosecutors might want to strike someone who’s had a negative experience with law enforcement in the past.

Ultimately, it’s up to Judge Glanville to decide who is struck from the jury pool.

“We all come to a situation with a full life of experiences and everything that influences our decisions. And so there will be the attorneys, both the attorneys for the state and the defense attorneys, who will question jurors about those kinds of things.”

Perhaps the best indicator of how seriously Judge Glanville is taking jury selection is in the punishment he gave to one woman who failed to appear in court on her first day of jury duty because she was on vacation. Judge Glanville ordered her to write a 30-page essay (APA style) on the historical importance of jury duty.

Other incidents in the courtroom have delayed jury selection even further. There have been multiple incidents of contraband being smuggled into the courtroom and other incidents involving defendants in the Fulton County Jail. Most recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that three defendants are accused of stabbing someone in the jail.

The trial

A typical trial will have jury selection that lasts one day — sometimes half a day — and 40 people are summoned. Over a month into jury selection for the YSL trial, the court is not close to seating a jury.

The best model for this trial is the 2014 APS cheating scandal. The jury selection lasted five to six weeks, and the trial lasted eight months, making it the longest in Georgia’s history. It was a RICO case, and the lead prosecutor was Fani Willis, the current District Attorney of Fulton County.

Georgia’s RICO law is being put to the test again. RICO cases involve a group of people working together to illegally obtain money or property through a pattern of racketeering activity. The law was originally implemented to combat organized crime, though it’s used more broadly nowadays.

It examines a group’s entire body of work with a longer statute of limitations than typical felonies, says Chris Timmons, a partner with the Knowles Gallant Timmons law firm in Atlanta. Individuals don’t have to commit another crime to violate the RICO law. They have to assist others in committing crimes. This is considered an overt act in furthering a conspiracy.

“It’s more dangerous when you’ve got people acting in concert, and the RICO Act allows you to charge people that are acting in concert for acting in concert,” Timmons says. “They get charged with the conspiracy that they’re engaged in, which is worse than if it were just a series of individual crimes.”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis appears in a courtroom on Jan. 24, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Discussions about the trial have been centered on the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases. In the indictment, prosecutors say that Young Thug and other YSL affiliates have rapped about the alleged crimes in their songs and promoted criminal activity on social media.

“I think a lot of folks — when they talk about rap music as evidence — they’ve got the order wrong,” Timmons says. “I think they think that the police are in a basement somewhere looking at the Billboard Hot 100 rap songs and thinking ‘Who can we arrest?’ That’s not what happens.”

Timmons explains that song lyrics and other artistic mediums are identified as evidence only after a crime occurs, a suspect is developed, and other evidence has been gathered.

“I’ve never seen a case based solely on rap lyrics. It’s additional evidence, and it can be helpful evidence, but it’s not going to be the cornerstone of any prosecution,” Timmons says. “Even in this case, where you have high profile, prolific writers, the lyrics are not going to be the centerpiece of it.”

But it’s still controversial, and it’s risky for prosecutors to use lyrics, he says. Especially with rap music, the value of the evidence should substantially outweigh the danger of being unfairly prejudiced.

In the YSL indictment, song lyrics were used to support the RICO case.

Other Fulton County news

  • Fani Willis is also overseeing Fulton County’s special purpose grand jury investigating whether illegal attempts were made to overturn the 2020 election results. Former President Donald Trump is at the center of the investigation, and an indictment could be made public soon.
  • Judge Glanville is also the presiding judge over the death penalty trial for Robert Aaron Long, who was charged for the shootings that killed eight people at spas in metro Atlanta in March 2021. The trial was originally scheduled to begin in October 2022. It was rescheduled for January 2023. It will now wait until after the YSL trail is finished.