Young Thug's historic Atlanta trial snarling the justice system 'statewide' for families seeking closure

The Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta is seen on Aug. 14, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

It’s been more than a year since a deadly shooting in southwest Atlanta claimed the life of Derrick Williams — a 51-year-old father of six. 

His grieving mother, Barbara Williams, says court delays caused by the historic trial of Atlanta rapper Jeffery Lamar Williams — also known as Young Thug — are keeping her family from getting closure. 

The massive RICO trial in Fulton County Superior Court is already the longest in Georgia history, and on May 27, it will hit the six-month mark.

Defense attorneys have said it will likely last through February of next year, snarling the system and delaying justice for scores of unrelated cases in limbo waiting for it to be resolved.

In March, Williams reached out to the Atlanta Public Safety Committee to see if there was anything council members could do.

“I just need some help,” Williams said. “I don’t know what to do or where to go.”

“The system, it’s failed me. Every time we go to court, they say, ‘No more postponing.’ You know, they have to come up with something. Well, they postpone it again.”

Barbara Williams, mother of a man shot and killed in 2023. She says delays caused by the Young Thug case is keeping her family from getting closure.

Online records show the man accused of shooting Williams, Charlie Cooper, was granted a $125,000 bond and ordered to wear an ankle monitor after surrendering himself and spending six months in the Fulton County Jail. 

The now-50-year-old man is charged with murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Williams’ mother said she’s been to court many times, but there’s been little to no progress in the case. 

“That’s my child,” Williams said. “It may not be important to anybody else, but it’s important to me. … The system, it’s failed me. Every time we go to court, they say, ‘No more postponing.’ You know, they have to come up with something. Well, they postpone it again.”

Scheduling conflicts aren’t uncommon in Fulton County, which has the busiest justice system in the southeast. 

But, the Williams family has argued that’s precisely their issue.

Court records reveal attorney Careton Matthews Sr. has filed half a dozen so-called “conflict letters” to Judge Melynee Leftridge letting her know that he won’t be able to make it to Cooper’s court hearings, because he’s also representing a co-defendant in the YSL RICO trial.

The trial has been making national headlines since the state started presenting its case due to its pace and repeated disruptions, like in April, when presiding Chief Judge Ural Glanville threatened to start holding court on weekends.

“Alright, I guess you all will be working this weekend then, because this is exactly what I told you was going to be a problem,” Glanville said to the lead prosecutor. “You bring this stuff up. I got a jury sitting in a box, and you got a witness that you’re probably going to have days of examination with.”

Cooper’s attorney, Matthews, did not respond to a request for comment. 

However, at a May 14 bond revocation hearing, where the state argued Cooper had repeatedly violated his 24-hour curfew, Matthews said Cooper was “innocent of the charges” and shouldn’t be kept in jail indefinitely, because he’s busy with another case. 

“He just made an error in judgement,” Matthews said. “Is the consequence, your honor, that he remain in jail until his trial comes up, which could be next year, more than likely, because I’m going to be in this trial probably for the rest of this year and into another Super Bowl? We still have about 100-plus witnesses that we have to go through.”

That’s not the state’s fault, Leftridge said.

“That’s not the court’s fault,” Matthews responded. “It’s not Mr. Cooper’s fault, but it is a factor that I’m asking the court to consider as it weighs what’s appropriate here.” 

Leftridge said she didn’t plan to immediately reinstate Cooper’s bond, but needed time to weigh the “extraordinarily remote” chance that his trial would even be in a position to begin within the first three months of next year.

“Bond is not supposed to be punitive, but folks are expected to follow the conditions of their bond, so there’s a significant amount that I have to consider connected to this litigation, and I’m going to do that,” Leftridge said.

She upheld Cooper’s bond revocation the next day.

Unindicted inmates make up nearly half of Fulton Jail

In the meantime, the Fulton County Jail remains under federal and state investigation over its overcrowded and dangerous conditions. Nearly half of all people behind bars there have yet to be indicted, with some waiting years. 

At least 10 people died while in custody at the facility in 2023 and three so far this year.

Michael Brill, a private criminal defense lawyer not associated with either of Matthews’ cases, spent several years working as a public defender in Fulton County’s complex trial division, which deals with a vast majority of serious offenses, including armed robbery, aggravated assault, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

He says the YSL RICO trial isn’t just a local problem.

“YSL has been affecting not only the Fulton County backlog but statewide,” Brill said, standing outside the Fulton County courthouse one morning. “You go to calendar calls all the time in multiple counties around the metro area and you have announcements of somebody that’s been waiting for trial and their attorney [is on] this case.”

Brill said the Williams family’s options to try to speed up their case are limited, because lawyers are allowed to represent multiple clients at a time.

“That client, whether they were appointed an attorney or they’ve retained counsel, are entitled to competent and a vigorous defense,” Brill said. “That judge has no power and usually wouldn’t even try to say, ‘Hey, we need to try this case. Could you take a week off?’ That’s just not how it works.”

‘Nobody really fully thought that this was going to take that long’

According to a Fulton County database, there are nearly 6,000 pending cases in superior court. 

The state’s other high-profile cases against former President Donald Trump, the 61 opponents of Atlanta’s public safety training center and the man accused of committing the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings are included in that number.

Brill said murder trials with one defendant typically last a week, so it’s not entirely surprising that the multi-defendant YSL RICO trial is almost half a year in.

“I know all those attorneys are facing their own challenges, because they had to essentially give up the ability to resolve their other cases, acquire new clients, and some are lucky, some are not,” Brill said. “Nobody really fully thought that this was going to take that long.”

Atlanta City Council Member Michael Julian Bond met with Williams after the committee meeting in March. He says he told the mother that as a city official, his hands are tied, but he can try to advocate for her family. 

“Justice is based in equal treatment and equality and so, for true justice to exist in Fulton County, then every case has to be treated the same,” Bond said.

A spokesperson with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office has previously said it’s fully prepared to begin Cooper’s trial as soon as a date is set by the judge. 

“We cannot comment about the case beyond noting that courts give great deference to defendants’ choice of defense counsel, and that case scheduling decisions are the purview of the courts,” spokesman Jeff DiSantis said in an email. “Our victim-witness advocates, prosecutors and investigators work hard to keep victims and their families informed of the status of all cases in our office.”