The highly anticipated Young Thug trial got off to a slow and rocky start — consistent with a pretrial process, as jury selection took nearly 11 months to complete.
The prosecution portrayed the rapper as the “head” of the so-called “criminal street gang” YSL (Young Slime Life), and used lyrics in its opening statement to support its case, but not without many delays and a fiery Judge Ural Glanville, who seemed upset with both sides on Monday.
The rapper, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, and 27 other defendants have been charged in a sweeping 65-count indictment. Mr Williams has been charged with eight counts, including possession of a firearm while committing a felony and possession of a machine gun. He has pleaded guilty to all counts.
All defendants have been charged with racketeering. Prosecutors say YSL is a gang; the defence insists it is just a record label.
The trial began nearly an hour and a half behind schedule because a juror was late.
The prosecutor, Adriane Love, was finally able to begin her opening statements — but was stopped a few times with objections. Defence attorney Brian Steel made three objections to her opening statement, all of which were sustained.
The trial then came to a screeching halt when the jury was asked to leave the room and the defence team said that Ms Love hadn’t provided certain Powerpoint slides, which she was presenting to the jury, to the defence ahead of the trial, prompting Mr Steel to motion for a mistrial. The motion was denied.
After the court returned from lunch, the judge snapped at attorneys from both sides for having “wasted two hours.”
Finally, Ms Love resumed her opening statement.
To make the prosecution’s point, that YSL is functioning as a cohesive unit, she underscored some codes and symbols that the group uses to communicate. She said YSL substitutes the letter “C” with the letter “B,” like “Bleveland” instead of Cleveland, uses certain emojis, like the green heart, green snake, and green vomit emojis, and uses certain hand signs.
“The only time...that members of YSL don’t want to call themselves and acknowledge that they are in fact a gang is when it would be to their detriment. The evidence will show that they are loudly and proudly promoting their criminal activities,” Ms Love said.
She zeroed in on Mr Williams, painting him as the ringleader of the group. “The defendant Jeffery Williams’ words and actions betrayed his participation in the conspiracy,” Ms Love said. He rented a car, despite owning a car, that other YSL members used to “notoriously gun down Donovan Thomas,” the prosecutor added.
The case hinges on the killing of Thomas, who is called an “associate of a rival gang” in the indictment and whose death was described by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis as leading to a gang war that “created violence like Atlanta has never seen.”
The use of lyrics in the courtroom has been a point of contention leading up to the trial. Ms Love mentioned some lyrics right off the bat in an effort to demonstrate to jurors that some of the group’s lyrics are related to crimes that they are accused of committing.
“We didn’t chase any of the lyrics to solve any murders. Law enforcement in Fulton County chased the murders and found the lyrics,” Ms Love clarified. “The lyrics [defendants] chose to speak...bore a very eerie significance to real life.”
In its opening statement, the defence also focused on Thomas’ killing.
Attorney Max Schardt argued that his client, Shannon Stillwell, is an “innocent man.” Mr Stillwell is one of a few charged with Thomas’ murder; he has been previously charged with distributing drugs.
Mr Schardt said that his client was “trying to make it in rap, sold marijuana” and pleaded guilty. He tried to separate Mr Stillwell’s past as being totally separate from YSL. He said he had done his time for the drug charges.
“We’re not hiding that Shannon Stillwell sold drugs...or was found in possession of a firearm. These are his pasts and his truths,” he added. “But the evidence will show that Shannon’s decisions had nothing to do with YSL or any other organisation.”
Mr Schardt also claimed there were “no eyewitnesses” of Thomas’ murder. He said there is surveillance footage of the incident, which jurors will be able to watch.
In the trial’s second day, the defence lawyers gave impassioned opening statements.
Mr Steel, who is representing Mr Williams, kicked off the day by describing the rapper's upbringing. Mr Williams “was born into an environment and a community and a society that was filled with depression, despair, hopelessness and helplessness,” Mr Steel said of the housing projects in which the rapper grew up.
Mr Steel tried to distance Mr Williams from the rest of the defendants while simultaneously emphasising his musical talent and subsequent success.
The defence attorney said that Young Thug doesn’t need money, doesn’t know many of his codefendants, and doesn’t live in Georgia anymore.
“He’s got his own source of legitimate income,” he said after listing his appearances on SNL, Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and NPR’s Tiny Desk, his collaborations with superstars like Rihanna and Elton John, as well as his musical accolades, including a Grammy.
The topic of the origins of YSL also came up. Mr Steel argued that “YSL” stemmed from the “YSL” logo on Yves Saint Laurent pants, coming in sharp contrast to the prosecution’s claim that YSL is a criminal enterprise that stands for “Young Slime Life.”
Mr Steel has also described the lyrics, a pressure point of this case, as being “art” and part of the rapper’s “freedom of speech.” Yesterday, Ms Love portrayed the lyrics as bearing “a very eerie significance to real life.”
Other lawyers made their opening remarks, telling the jurors that their clients were not guilty.
Prosecutors are expected to start presenting evidence tomorrow morning.