Young Thug’s attorney told jurors Tuesday (Nov. 28) that his client was “born into a society filled with despair” and merely rapped about violent crime because “these are the stories he knew” — and that prosecutors had cherry-picked lyrics that matched the crimes they hoped to pin against him.
A day after Atlanta prosecutors kicked off the artist’s racketeering trial by accusing Thug (Jeffery Williams) of running a criminal street gang that operated like a “pack” of wolves, his attorney, Brian Steel, responded by telling the jury that the rapper “doesn’t even know most of the people in this indictment” and had no reason to run a criminal organization.
“He’s not sitting there telling people to kill people,” Steel said. “He doesn’t need their money. Jeffery is worth tens of millions of dollars.”
In addition to refuting each of the alleged “overt acts” that form the basis for the RICO case against Thug, Steel defended his client’s First Amendment right to rap about the dangerous conditions he faced growing up in Atlanta’s Cleveland Avenue neighborhood.
“Yes, he speaks about ‘killing 12’ and people being shot and drugs and drive-by shootings,” Steel said, referring to a phrase that allegedly refers to murdering police. “This is the environment he grew up in. These are the people he knew, these are the stories he knew. These are the words he rhymed.”
“This is art,” Steel added. “This is freedom of speech.”
Thug (Jeffery Williams) was indicted last year on accusations that his “YSL” was not really a record label/music collective called “Young Stoner Life,” but a violent Atlanta gang called “Young Slime Life” that committed murders, carjackings, drug dealing and other crimes over the course of a decade.
Along with other charges, Thug stands accused of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law based on the more famous federal RICO statute that’s been used to target the mafia, drug cartels and other forms of organized crime. If convicted on all eight of his counts, Thug faces decades in prison.
Go read an explainer of the YSL case here, including a full breakdown of the charges and a deep-dive into the background of the accusations.
Throughout his opening statements Tuesday, Steel told a story of a young, impoverished kid whose disdain for police and the justice system stemmed from real-life instances of neglect and mistreatment. Steel said Thug had watched presumably innocent people face serious consequences after “snitches” told lies to them, and had witnessed his mother be handcuffed after his brother had been shot. During that incident, Steel said Thug had watched police place a sheet over his brother’s face despite the fact that he was still breathing.
Describing his client as a malnourished child with rotted teeth, Steel said Thug had turned to rap as a way out of poverty. He “idolized” rappers Lil Wayne and 2Pac, the attorney told jurors, and even took his stage name from the latter’s 1995 song with Smooth titled “P.Y.T (Playa Young Thugs).” Steel said the stage name wasn’t intended to be menacing but is, instead, an acronym for ‘truly humbled under God.’
Steel spent a majority of his more than two hours of opening statements going through each of the individual charges and “overt acts” — the small actions that make up a RICO charge.
One of those alleged acts is that Young Thug rented a 2014 Silver Infiniti Q50 sedan that was allegedly used during the murder of a rival gang leader, Donovan Thomas, in 2015. But Steel denied that Thug had any involvement in the killing, saying he had regularly rented cars for friends and had been “sad” to learn of Thomas’ death.
Steel frequently criticized the use of rap lyrics as evidence — a controversial prosecutorial tactic that has drawn criticism in recent years. During Monday’s opening statements, for instance, prosecutors told jurors that a particular Thug lyric — “hundred rounds in a Tahoe” from the song “Slime Shit” — referred to Donovan’s killing in a Chevy Tahoe. But Steel disputed that argument, saying Thug rapped about various cars often and there was “no evidence of when that lyric was even created.”
At other points Tuesday, Steel repeatedly questioned the trustworthiness of Kenneth Copeland, a former YSL member who made headlines earlier this year when a video leaked showing him talking with police investigators. The attorney described Copeland as a “leech” and “snitch” who had lied to investigators to avoid facing his own criminal charges.
Copeland is listed as a prosecution witness in the case, and Steel’s statements — which suggested that Copeland could have actually committed some of the crimes in the indictment — indicate he believes Copeland could be a key witness for the other side.
Several of the alleged acts refuted by Steel involved riffs or interactions with other rappers, including the allegation that YSL affiliates had once fired gunshots at rapper Lil Wayne’s tour bus in service of Young Thug.
During his statements, Steel acknowledged that Thug had recorded a video about Wayne’s Atlanta appearance that showed him surrounded by people with guns. But he said Thug had been told to create the video by his management for entertainment reasons because such a beef “creates interest in fans.”
Steel also noted Thug’s publicized disputes with YFN Lucci. The attorney described Lucci as a less successful rapper who used Thug’s name for clout, including claiming to have sex with Thug’s fiancé. Steel asked the jury if the leader of a criminal street gang would’ve let that go unscathed for so long.
Thug’s attorney also alluded to Lil Uzi Vert, accusing prosecutors of misrepresenting text messages to make it appear that Thug was threatening the fellow rapper’s life when he wrote “YSL Rule the world kid. 24m on a nigga head…” Steel said the text was not a bounty but rather an innocuous reference to Vert’s highly-publicized decision to have a $24 million diamond implanted in his forehead.
The YSL trial will continue Wednesday with more opening statements from attorneys for the other five defendants (Marquavius Huey, Deamonte “Yak Gotti” Kendrick, Quamarvious Nichols, Rodalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwell). Once openers conclude, the district attorney’s office will begin presenting its case and calling witnesses – a process that could last months.