Young Thug faces trial in RICO case with rap lyrics as part of evidence. What you need to know

The rapper is facing gang-related charges in Fulton County, Georgia.

January 9, 2023, 4:58 AM

The trial of Young Thug is set to begin in an Atlanta courtroom on Monday as the rapper faces gang-related charges, along with 13 other defendants, in a sweeping grand jury RICO indictment in Fulton County.

Young Thug, a Grammy-winning rapper whose legal name is Jeffrey Lamar Williams, was arrested on May 9, 2022, and was charged with one count each of conspiring to violate the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and participating in criminal street gang activity.

After a search of his home following his arrest, the rapper was also charged with an additional count of participating in street gang activity, three counts of violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, possession of a firearm while committing a felony and possession of a machine gun. Those charges were later wrapped into the RICO indictment.

He has pleaded not guilty to all eight counts.

"Mr. Williams has committed no crime whatsoever," his attorney Brian Steel told ABC News. "We will fight this case ethically, legally and zealously. Mr. Williams will be cleared."

This case sent shock waves through the music industry and spotlighted the controversial use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings.

Here's what you need to know:

The charges

Young Thug was among 28 individuals named in the indictment who are allegedly associated with the Atlanta-based Young Slime Life (YSL), a gang that prosecutors allege Young Thug co-founded, along with two other co-defendants, in 2012. But YSL, which is also the acronym for "Young Stoner Life," is also the name of the rapper's brand and music label -- an imprint of 300 Entertainment. The music label is not named in the indictment.

Prosecutors allege YSL is a "criminal street gang" that "claims affiliation with the national Bloods gang" and predominantly operates in Southeast Atlanta, but has expanded activities to surrounding areas, according to charging documents obtained by ABC News.

"This indictment is significant because it targets 28 people who decided to become involved in a criminal street gang and really do havoc in our community," Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office is prosecuting this case, said in a May 10, 2022 press conference announcing the indictment.

"That havoc includes crimes of violence, crimes of theft, crimes involving drugs," she added.

Charges in the 65-count RICO indictment include murder and attempted murder.

Young Thug is not charged with murder or attempted murder but is accused of allegedly renting a car used in the Jan. 10, 2015 killing of rival gang associate Donovan Thomas, Jr., which according to Willis "triggered" additional gang-related killings in the city.

"As a result of [the killing of Donovan Thomas], the back and forth of gun violence and murders that have occurred have probably been in excess of 50 since 2015," Wills told ABC affiliate in Atlanta WSB-TV in May 2022.

The defendants

Fourteen of the 28 individuals indicted are set to stand trial in this case, including Young Thug.

Fellow YSL rapper Gunna, whose legal name is Sergio Kitchens, was also indicted and charged with one count of conspiring to violate the state's RICO Act, but after pleading not guilty he was one of the defendants who took a plea deal and will not be tried in this case.

Gunna, a Grammy-nominated rapper who was the other nationally-recognized celebrity to be indicted in this case, was released last month after pleading guilty in an Alford plea, which is a negotiated agreement in which a defendant maintains their innocence but acknowledges that the prosecution's evidence would likely lead to a guilty verdict.

"I have chosen to end my own RICO case with an Alford plea and end my personal ordeal by publicly acknowledging my association with YSL," he said in a written statement provided to ABC News by his attorney Steve Sadow.

Gunna indicated in the statement that he has "NOT cooperated" with prosecutors and would not testify in the trial against Young Thug.

"Sergio Kitchens has no intention of testifying in the RICO conspiracy trial," Sadow told ABC News last week.

Gunna is among eight defendants who accepted plea deals, but prosecutors could call others to testify in this case as part of their agreement with prosecutors, their attorneys confirmed to ABC News.

Meanwhile, four individuals who have not yet retained attorneys and two others who have not yet been arrested are expected to be tried separately, according to court documents reviewed by ABC News.

The lyrics

Prosecutors argue in the indictment that social media postings, images and various song lyrics released by several defendants, including Young Thug, are "overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy" to violate the RICO Act.

"Jeffery Williams, an Atlanta-based hip-hop artist, made YSL a well-known name by referring to it in his songs and on social media," the indictment says.

In the indictment, prosecutors reference instances where individuals allegedly associated with the YSL gang wore or displayed symbols of "YSL" in music videos posted on social media between 2016 and 2021 and rapped lyrics that mention "YSL" and/or various descriptions of criminal activity.

The lyrics listed in the YSL indictment are from songs in the same time frame, including Young Thug's hit, "Anybody" and several numbers from YSL's 2020 compilation album, "Slime Language 2," including "Take it to Trial," "Ski," and "Slatty."

Prosecutors argue the lyrics served as "overt acts" to fulfill a key objective of the alleged RICO conspiracy: "Preserving, protecting and enhancing the reputation, power and territory of the enterprise [YSL]."

Although the scope of the YSL indictment goes far beyond the lyrics, the inclusion of lyrics has sparked a movement to "Protect Black Art" and criticism from freedom-of-speech advocates and the artists themselves, who argue that introducing lyrics into a case with the implication that they are reflections of reality, discounts rap as a form of artistic expression.

Steel filed a motion last month asking the court to prevent prosecutors from using Young Thug's lyrics as evidence against him at trial, arguing in a motion obtained by ABC News, that the practice is "racist and discriminatory" because it could prejudice a jury against his client.

"[Lyrics] cannot be used as evidence of crime if they are simply connected to music/freedom of expression/freedom of speech/poetry," the motion said.

In a separate filing, prosecutors defended the use of lyrics and requested a hearing on the issue but the hearing, which was delayed, never took place and lyrics were admitted into this case and were read by judge Ural Glanville to potential jurors as part of the indictment.