Hip-hop collective or street gang? In a blockbuster case against the famed Atlanta rap crew YSL, headed by Young Thug, prosecutors say it is both.
When the racketeering and gang conspiracy trial of Jeffery Williams, best known as the chart-topping rapper Young Thug, began on Nov. 27 in Atlanta, the star defendant had been in jail for 567 days.
Already estimated to last the better part of a year, the trial took nearly twice that long to even get going, with the case’s legal intricacies, unforeseen courtroom dramas, plea deals and various other delays leading to a jury selection process that lasted nearly 10 months. (Two weeks into the trial, one of the defendants was stabbed in jail, holding up the proceedings yet again. On Tuesday, court was paused until Jan. 2.)
Much about the case — which seeks to answer whether one of the most famous and influential rappers of his time was also spearheading a violent criminal enterprise — could be described as epic, including its scope, with alleged crimes from 2015 to 2022; its effect on rap music and the city that remains one of the genre’s centers for innovation; and its entanglement with the potential legal fate of former President Donald J. Trump.
Prosecutors say that Young Thug’s YSL, or Young Slime Life, is a subset of the national Bloods led by Mr. Williams, who ordered and oversaw crimes including murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, witness intimidation and drug dealing. Mr. Williams has pleaded not guilty and denied all of the charges.
He was initially charged alongside 27 associates, but after a slew of guilty pleas and severed cases, he is now standing trial with five individuals.
During opening statements, Adriane Love, the chief deputy district attorney for Fulton County, said that YSL “moved like a pack, with the defendant Jeffery Williams as its head” as it sought to establish dominance, control and fear through a pattern of illegal activities in the Atlanta area.
“They knew who their leader was, and they knew the repercussions of not obeying their leader,” Ms. Love said after quoting from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Law of the Jungle.” She also referred to the rapper by his nickname, King Slime.
Lawyers for the rapper and the other defendants say that YSL is simply a successful record label, Young Stoner Life, now an imprint under Warner Music Group, and a collection of friends and collaborators who portray a gangster image in their music and videos because of tough life circumstances — and because that is what sells.
While some of those charged in the original indictment may have committed isolated crimes, lawyers for Mr. Williams say, he is not responsible for their actions, or the one pulling the strings, as prosecutors contend.
“He is not running this criminal street gang,” Mr. Williams’s primary lawyer, Brian Steel, said during his opening statement, detailing his client’s rags-to-riches story from “depression, despair, hopelessness and helplessness” to international renown. “He is not sitting there telling people to kill people. He doesn’t need their money.”
Instead, Mr. Steel framed Mr. Williams as an artist who has been taken advantage of by the very criminals — “these liars, these snitches, these rats” — who will now testify against him.
“Jeffery doesn’t even know most of the people in this indictment,” Mr. Steel said.
Here is what to know about the complex trial as it finally proceeds.
Who is Jeffery Williams, a.k.a. Young Thug?
Mr. Williams, 32, is one of modern Atlanta’s rap icons, having remade the genre in his image over the past decade. Combining psychedelic experimentalism in voice, melody, lyricism and fashion with a hardened street edge and a sneaky pop sensibility, Mr. Williams has earned three No. 1 albums on the Billboard chart and collaborated widely with musicians including Drake, Kanye West and Elton John.
In 2018, as a featured artist, Young Thug reached No. 1 on the singles chart with the singer Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” The following year, he won a Grammy for song of the year as a writer of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” the first rap song to win that award.
The 10th of 1l children, Mr. Williams was raised in the Jonesboro South housing projects and along the desolate South Atlanta corridor Cleveland Avenue. He founded YSL in the area around late 2012, according to court documents, in association with two other men, both of whom have pleaded guilty in the case.
What exactly is Mr. Williams charged with?
The original 56-count indictment included just two specific counts against Mr. Williams: conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and participation in criminal street gang activity. But a reindictment in August 2022 stemming from a search of Mr. Williams’s home where he was arrested, added six additional counts against him.
RICO was originally designed to dismantle organized crime groups like the mafia, and it allows prosecutors to argue that Mr. Williams and others committed “overt acts” that were not necessarily discrete crimes in furtherance of YSL’s broader criminal conspiracy. The law does not require the state to prove that Mr. Williams knew about or ordered all of the subsequent crimes or acts, only that he was the head of an enterprise that carried them out.
The case centers on the Jan. 10, 2015, killing of Donovan Thomas Jr., known as Nut or Big Nut, in a drive-by shooting. Mr. Thomas, according to law enforcement, was a high-ranking member of another Bloods subset known as the Inglewood Family, or IF, as well as a behind-the-scenes connector in Atlanta rap music affiliated with the artists Rich Homie Quan and YFN Lucci.
Ms. Willis, the district attorney, said that Mr. Thomas’s killing led to a gang war that “created violence like Atlanta has never seen,” including more than 50 violent encounters, as YSL and its allies traded attacks with IF members and their affiliates in the crew known as YFN. (YFN Lucci, born Rayshawn Bennett, is also awaiting trial following a 2021 RICO indictment against YFN in Fulton County.)
While Mr. Williams is not charged with Mr. Thomas’s murder, prosecutors say he helped arrange the killing because of intra-gang beefs and rap business disputes. He rented the silver Infiniti Q50 sedan that was used in the shooting, prosecutors say, and then gave those involved cash and directions to “lay low.”
Mr. Steel, a lawyer for Mr. Williams, said that the rapper rented cars for friends “all the time,” and was pulled unknowingly into a dispute between Mr. Thomas and another man, Kenneth Copeland, or Lil Woody, who is expected to testify against Mr. Williams.
“He uses Jeffery Williams, just like a lot of people,” Mr. Steel said of Mr. Copeland.
The additional gun and drug charges against Mr. Williams include possession of an illegal machine gun and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Lawyers for Mr. Williams have said that many people stayed at his homes and that the contraband did not belong to him.
If convicted on all charges, the rapper could face up to 120 years in prison.
What about the other defendants?
Those being tried alongside Mr. Williams include Marquavius Huey (known as Qua); Deamonte Kendrick (known as the rapper Yak Gotti); Quamarvious Nichols; Rodalius Ryan, who is already serving life in prison for a 2019 murder; and Shannon Stillwell (known as SB or Shannon Jackson). All are charged with violating the RICO law.
Mr. Kendrick and Mr. Stillwell are charged with executing the murder of Mr. Thomas in 2015, while Mr. Stillwell and Mr. Nichols stand accused of another murder, of Shymel Drinks, in 2022, among other counts.
Out of the 28 original defendants, 13 had their cases separated from the group for various procedural and logistical reasons, while nine pleaded guilty, including Mr. Williams’s brother, Quantavious Grier, who raps as Unfoonk, and Gunna, born Sergio Kitchens, a popular one-time collaborator of Mr. Williams’s. (Despite controversy over whether his guilty plea amounted to “snitching,” Gunna has returned to commercial success while on probation, remaining largely mum on the case.)
In all, four of the original 28 defendants were already serving life in prison; others had already been convicted of crimes listed as overt acts in the indictment, such as the Lil Wayne tour bus shooting in 2015 by an accused YSL member named Jimmy Winfrey.
Why has this case taken so long?
Because the Georgia RICO statute allows prosecutors to group together crimes that may seem unrelated if they are in support of a shared objective, the case consists of an intricate web of events spanning many years, alleged participants, victims, evidence and up to 400 potential witnesses — winnowed down from 700 by prosecutors in the days before opening statements.
“RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office or law enforcement to tell the whole story,” Ms. Willis has said.
In this case, her office will have to prove the existence of an enterprise — that YSL is a criminal street gang — and a pattern of racketeering activity. The 95-page indictment against YSL included 191 overt acts that the state says were in furtherance of the criminal enterprise, which sought to intimidate rivals, protect territory and bolster its brand.
Attempting to try everything at once, while telling of the broader conspiracy through the overt acts, could result in a trial lasting many months, which made seating a jury difficult. Some 2,000 Fulton County residents were considered.
The final panel of 12 jurors includes seven Black women, two Black men, two white women and one white man. The six alternates include four Black women, one Black man and one white man.
Despite strong legal opposition from the defense and public activism to “Protect Black Art,” the judge ruled in early November that at least 17 specific sets of lines from the music of Young Thug and other YSL artists could be used by the state to argue for the existence of the gang; the defendants’ membership in the alleged criminal conspiracy; and their mind state regarding specific crimes they are accused of committing.
Lawyers for Mr. Williams contended that the use of lyrics, videos and social media posts was “racist and discrimination because the jury will be so poisoned and prejudiced by these lyrics/poetry/artistry/speech” that it amounted to “unlawful character assassination.”
But prosecutors successfully argued that the lyrics were simply supporting evidence, not unlike a killer’s written manifesto, that YSL existed as a gang and committed crimes as part of its aims, and therefore were not protected by the First Amendment.
“We didn’t chase the lyrics to solve the murder, we chased the murder and found the lyrics,” Ms. Love, the deputy district attorney, said during her opening statement.
The prosecution added in a slide show: “We are going to show you that these defendants participated in this enterprise in a way that had nothing to do with a record label — killing, robbing, stealing — except that their actions made their rap more real when they chose to rap about their actions in their songs.”
Other similar evidence — including tattoos and hoodies, as well as emoji usage, YSL slang like “slatt” and “slime” and the group’s popular “wipe your nose” hand gesture — will also be invoked at trial in attempts to prove that YSL existed as a criminal enterprise and was linked by certain customs and expectations.
In a racketeering and gang conspiracy case like the one facing YSL, prosecutors argued, “evidence of existence and the nature of the organization is not only relevant, it’s required.”
In court, Mr. Steel said of Young Thug lyrics, “Yes, he speaks about killing 12” — Atlanta slang for the police — “and people being shot and drugs and drive-by shootings. This is the environment that he grew up in. These are the people he knew. These are the stories he knew. These are the words that he rhymed.”