Rapper Young Thug's trial on racketeering conspiracy and gang charges begins in Atlanta

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)

Young Thug is the ruthless leader of a violent street gang that terrorized Atlanta neighborhoods or he’s an inspiring success who pulled himself out of poverty to rap stardom through hard work and determination. Those are the competing narratives presented to the jury as the rapper’s trial got underway this week.

The Grammy winner, 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. He also is charged with gang, drug and gun crimes and is standing trial with five of the others indicted with him.

Fulton County prosecutor Adriane Love didn’t dispute that Young Thug is a talented artist, but she said he exploited his gift for a darker purpose, using his songs, clout and social media posts to promote and establish the dominance of his gang, Young Slime Life, or YSL.

“Through that music, through that blessing, the evidence will show, Jeffery Williams led that group of people who wreaked utter havoc on Fulton County,” Love told jurors during her opening statement Monday.

Defense attorney Brian Steel acknowledged that his client’s songs mention killing police, people being shot, drugs and drive-by shootings, but he said those are just the words he rhymed and a reflection of his rough upbringing and not a chronicle of his own activities.

“They want you to fear music that talks about killing, drugs,” Steel told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday. “It is art. You don’t like it, you don’t have to listen to it. This is America. It is art.”

Steel mentioned Young Thug’s collaborations with high-profile artists, appearances on television and numerous awards and riches that came with it. The rapper is so busy and successful that he wouldn’t have the time or motivation to lead a gang, Steel said.

“He is not sitting there telling people to kill people,” he said. “He doesn’t need their money. Jeffrey’s worth tens of millions of dollars.”

Steel noted that YSL is the name of Young Thug’s successful record label, but Love said the actions outlined in the indictment “have nothing to do with a recording label.”

The gang began about a decade ago in Atlanta’s Cleveland Avenue neighborhood, born of an internal rift in a preceding gang, and Young Thug emerged as its leader, Love said. The gang’s members were “associated in fact” — using common identifiers, language, symbols and colors — and they “knew who their leader was and they knew the repercussions of not obeying their leader,” she said.

The people who have been affected directly and indirectly by the gang’s violence represent the lives “swallowed up by that crater created by YSL in the Cleveland Avenue community,” Love said.

Young Thug was born into poverty in a crime-ridden housing project where he developed a strong distrust of the criminal justice system, Steel said. His family moved to the Cleveland Avenue area when he was 16, and he got out through hard work and talent, Steel said. But he didn’t forget his roots and has been extremely generous with his good fortune, Steel said.

“He’s not the crater. He’s trying to pull people out of poverty,” Steel said.

The indictment charges all the defendants with conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Love acknowledged that may sound complicated but told the jurors it’s actually quite simple.

The members of the gang committed crimes, including murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault and theft to further the gang’s mission, she said. Those actions and others that aren’t crimes — rap lyrics, social media posts, flashing gang signs — combined to form a pattern of illegal activity, she said.

“They endeavored to do some illegal stuff to get a bunch of stuff that didn’t belong to them,” Love said.

Prosecutors have made clear that they intend to use rap lyrics from songs by the defendants to help make their case. This is a controversial tactic, but Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville earlier this month said he’d conditionally allow certain lyrics as long as prosecutors can show they’re linked to the crimes alleged in the indictment.

Prosecutors have said they’re not pursuing Young Thug and others because of violent lyrics.

“We didn’t chase the lyrics to solve the murders,” Love said. “We chased the murders and, as the evidence will show, in the process, we found the lyrics.”

One of those murders that is expected to feature heavily during the trial is the January 2015 killing of Donovan Thomas, who prosecutors say was a major figure in a rival gang and whose death is said to have sparked an escalation in violence. Two of the six people currently on trial are charged with murder in his killing, and Young Thug is accused of renting the car used in the drive-by shooting.

Many of the lyrics, social media posts, text conversations and online messages cited in the indictment have been taken out of context and misrepresented to seem sinister when they are not, Steel said.

He and other defense attorneys tried during opening statements to poke holes in the state’s case, saying that police relied on jailhouse informants who had every reason to tell them what they wanted to hear. They also hammered the state’s use of song lyrics, saying the art that helped their clients better their circumstances is now being improperly used against them.

Opening statements began Monday and continued Tuesday before a jury that took nearly 10 months to select. The trial is expected to last months. Only six of the original 28 defendants are on trial after others either took plea deals or were separated to be tried later.

Among those who took a plea deal was rapper Gunna, whose given name is Sergio Kitchens. He was charged with a single count of racketeering conspiracy and entered an Alford plea last December, meaning he maintains his innocence but recognizes that it’s in his best interest to plead guilty.