Criminal Justice

The chaos unfolding at Young Thug's trial, explained

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Young Thug at trial

Jeffery Lamar Williams, left, who raps under the name Young Thug, sits with his attorney, Brian Steel, in March. (Audra Melton for the Washington Post)

An unwieldy RICO trial that could see Young Thug imprisoned for decades on gang charges veered toward chaos this week, when the rapper’s attorney was held in contempt of court and ordered to jail after suggesting that the judge and prosecutors pressured a key witness.

Late Wednesday, the Georgia Supreme Court stayed enforcement of the contempt charge, meaning Young Thug’s lawyer, Brian Steel, will not go to jail on Friday as previously ordered.

Steel was briefly sentenced to serve 20 weekend days in jail, even as he continued to represent Young Thug during the week, adding a layer or surrealism to what was already the longest criminal trial in Georgia history. More than six months after opening arguments, prosecutors aren’t even halfway through a proposed witness list, and it’s anyone’s guess where the trial goes from here.

Here’s what you need to know to catch up on the chaos.

Who is Young Thug?

The 32-year-old rapper was born Jeffery Lamar Williams but is widely known as Young Thug. He is a Grammy-winning Atlanta artist who changed the sonics of Southern rap with lyrics that flip between childish and poetic.

He was born one of 11 children in the Atlanta housing projects on Cleveland Avenue, about five miles from the courthouse where he now spends his days, accused of running a violent criminal street gang under the guise of a record label.

What did Young Thug do? Why is he on trial?

Young Thug faces nine charges, including possession of drugs and weapons, participation in criminal street gang activity and conspiracy to violate the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The RICO charge alone carries a potential sentence of five to 20 years in prison.

Young Thug’s case is linked to 27 other alleged gang associates arrested at the same time, in May 2022, five of whom are being tried alongside him. All six defendants have pleaded not guilty and maintain their innocence. “The members and associates of YSL moved like a pack, with defendant Jeffery Williams as its head,” lead prosecutor Adriane Love said during opening statements in November, referring to the alleged street gang Young Slime Life.

Some of the government’s evidence includes Young Thug’s lyrics - lines such as, “Gave the lawyer close to two mil. He handles all the killings,” which defense attorneys argue are fictional. But if found guilty of violating RICO, Young Thug could be held responsible for the crimes of anyone else in the alleged gang, which, according to prosecutors, include homicide, assault with a deadly weapon and armed robbery. That’s because the government is trying the case under Georgia’s racketeering statute, which dramatically ups the stakes for both defendants and prosecutors.

What are RICO charges, and how do they relate to this case?

The RICO Act was created about a half-century ago to prosecute mafia activity and other forms of racketeering. It essentially allows prosecutors to dismantle entire organizations, holding people at the top responsible for crimes committed by lower-level associates.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) is using the same law to try former president Donald Trump and more than a dozen of his allies, who are accused of criminally conspiring to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.

Prosecutors in Young Thug’s case are using RICO to show how the co-defendants allegedly operated as a gang called Young Slime Life. Prosecutors wrote in an 88-page indictment that the alleged Blood-affiliated gang has the same initials as Young Thug’s music label, Young Stoner Life.

But RICO cases are inherently complex and unwieldy, which has certainly been the case in Young Thug’s trial.

Why is the case such a mess?

Young Thug’s trial is already the longest in Georgia’s history, including a nearly year-long jury selection process and an unexpected break weeks after opening arguments last year, when one of Young Thug’s co-defendants was stabbed in jail. Since the trial resumed in January, it has been bogged down by a blizzard of administrative mishaps and hours lost to court delays.

Legal experts have said that there are many reasons the case is so tumultuous. For one, the rapper and his five co-defendants all have their legal teams chiming in during court. Criminal trials are slow and deliberative by design, and they can become glacial as the numbers of defendants and lawyers in the room multiply.

Another reason is the extreme length of the trial, which has provided opportunities for weirdness, including pornographic Zoom-bombing, jurors’ faces accidentally being live-streamed and a co-defendant being accused of a hand-to-hand drug swap in the courtroom. At one point, a Fulton County deputy was arrested for allegedly smuggling contraband into jail and having an “inappropriate relationship” with a defendant.

After hundreds of days, everyone involved in the case seems tired, but there’s no end in sight, with defense lawyers warning that the trial could stretch well into 2025. Judge Ural Glanville has even threatened to hold court on weekends if the proceedings don’t speed up.

Why was Young Thug’s lawyer headed to jail?

Steel was held in contempt after he accused Glanville and prosecutors of improperly meeting with the prosecution’s star witness, alleged YSL associate Kenneth “Lil Woody” Copeland. Despite being a sworn witness for the prosecution, Copeland had refused to take the stand Friday and was promptly jailed for it. He ended up testifying Monday, when prosecutors questioned him about his ties to Young Thug and the other defendants.

Steel confronted Glanville that afternoon about a private meeting that he claimed took place before Copeland took the stand. The attorney said a source told him that Glanville and the prosecutors threatened to jail Copeland until the trial’s conclusion if he didn’t testify.

“If that’s true, what this is is coercion, witness intimidation,” Steel told Glanville.

Glanville said that Steel had been given incorrect information. The judge declined to release a transcript of the meeting, even though a court reporter was there. He also denied multiple requests from the defense for a mistrial, and demanded to know who had told Steel about the meeting.

After refusing to give up his source, Steel was found in criminal contempt. Late Monday, Glanville sentenced Steel to 20 weekend days in Fulton County Jail beginning Friday. Steel has continued to appear in court and filed an appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court seeking to be released on bond and to overturn the contempt conviction. On Wednesday, the Georgia Supreme Court stayed enforcement of Steel’s contempt charge, meaning he will not go to jail while the court considers Steel’s motion to overturn the contempt charge. Steel had asked to be sent to Cobb County Jail, where Young Thug is being held, but the judge has not ruled on that request.

What happens next?

On Tuesday, Copeland appeared to fire his attorney, Kayla Bumpus, whom Glanville has implied might be the source of Steel’s claims. (Copeland told the judge, simply, “She fired,” when explaining his decision to let her go.) Bumpus was told by the judge to appear in court later this month to explain her exit from trial.

Outside the courtroom damage, others see the recent chaos as a potential reason for a mistrial. Bradford Cohen, an attorney who defended rapper Kodak Black in a 2022 drug case, supported Steel on social media, saying the arrest and the alleged secret meeting could lead to a mistrial.

“This is an instant mistrial,” he wrote. “I cannot believe the Judge thinks taking a defense atty into custody isn’t a mistrial.” He added: “Defense lawyers across the country should be terrified by the lack of judicial knowledge.”

But that’s all speculation. The Young Thug trial has seemingly gone off the rails several times in its long history, and only time will tell what happens next.

Holly Bailey contributed to this report.

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