The defense of Young Thug began Tuesday with the rapper’s attorney, Brian Steel, explaining trap music to grandmothers.
“He is not running a criminal enterprise on Cleveland Avenue to gather money and power,” Steel says, arguing that by 2014, the rapper, whose legal name is Jeffery Williams, was a superstar who wouldn’t have had anything to gain and everything to lose by running on the street. “He is not sitting there telling people to kill people. He doesn’t need their money. He’s worth tens of millions of dollars.”
The Fulton County superior court jury of nine women and three men are generally over 50, and have been chosen to some degree because they were unfamiliar with Williams before the case began. Questions about their musical knowledge or lack thereof were part of jury selection.
Williams faces a single charge of conspiracy to violate Georgia’s racketeering laws. He is one of six remaining defendants in the trial – 22 others have either taken plea deals or been severed from the case. Others in the case are charged with murder, gang crimes, illegal gun possession and other crimes. Prosecutors accuse Williams of renting a car that was later used in a drive-by murder as part of the gang and conspiracy case.
When Atlanta police arrested Williams at his home, they found a Glock “switch,” a handgun modified for automatic fire as a machine gun. Police also found a large amount of promethazine syrup, along with marijuana and cocaine, for which he also faces charges.
Steel’s opening defense described Young Thug as “a studio gangster” who escaped the grinding poverty of south Atlanta with a deep commitment to the craft – and image – of gangster rap who idolized and sought to emulate Lil Wayne and Tupac. “Lil Wayne changed the culture,” Steel said. In previous interviews, Atlanta police detectives echoed that sentiment, noting that the rise of Lil Wayne’s popularity came paired with an increase in association with Bloods gang activity. One of those detectives, Lakea Gaither, is listed as a prosecution witness.
Steel is among the most successful appellate attorneys in Georgia, with 45 conviction reversals over his career. He is also especially close to Williams, whom he has known for the better part of a decade, and represented Williams’ brother Quantavious Greer in his successful Georgia Supreme Court reversal on a murder conviction.
On Tuesday, Steel focused on two issues prosecutors will highlight: the testimony of Kenneth “Lil’ Woody” Copeland and the use of lyrics as evidence of gang activity in the racketeering conspiracy.
An interrogation tape of Copeland leaked to the public earlier this year, providing both insight into how the police have been viewing this case and how the street has viewed Lil’ Woody as a snitch. Copeland is expected to testify that Young Thug knew he was renting a car as part of a plan to murder Donovan “Peanut” Thomas. Copeland was a catalyst in the dispute between YSL and the rival street gang YFN turning violent, prosecutors say.
“Nobody is saying Jeffery was at the scene of that shooting,” Steel said. “But after Kenneth Copeland is arrested, he tells the police lie after lie after lie after lie.”
Steel dismissed the lyrics Young Thug uses in his music as common references in trap music that rhyme. “These are not confessions,” Steel said. “They are not admissions. They are art.” Steel invoked the music of Bruce Springsteen in comparison. “But rap lyrics, you will find out, are prosecutable.”