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Young Thug’s attorneys say prosecution is misrepresenting evidence and lyrics in racketeering trial

<i>Paras Griffin/Getty Images</i><br/>Young Thug
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Young Thug

By Eric Levenson and Christina Maxouris, CNN

(CNN) — A defense attorney for the rapper Young Thug accused prosecutors of misrepresenting evidence and ridiculed the idea that the Grammy-winning, world-renowned artist would be focused on running a small-time Atlanta street gang in opening statements of his racketeering trial Tuesday.

“He is not running this criminal street gang in Cleveland Avenue area of ‘Bleveland,’ to gain property, money or power. Jeffery Williams did it on will and hard work and determination without anybody’s help except for the people from that area who he will not turn his back on,” attorney Brian Steel told jurors, referring to the rapper by his given name.

“He’s not sitting there telling people to kill people,” Steel added. “He doesn’t need their money. Jeffery is worth tens of millions of dollars.”

The defense’s opening statements come at the start of what’s expected to be a monthslong trial that will be a test of the state’s expansive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis similarly used the law to indict former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants in connection with their alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

The trial is also a prominent example of the controversial prosecutorial tactic of using rap lyrics as evidence.

Young Thug, 32, is one of the music industry’s most innovative and influential artists, pushing both musical and cultural boundaries – such as in his decision to wear a purple dress for the cover of his 2016 album, “Jeffery.” He had a featured appearance on Camila Cabello’s hit song “Havana,” has collaborated with leading artists including Travis Scott and Drake, and won the Grammy for “Song of the Year” in 2019 for co-writing the track “This is America” with Childish Gambino and Ludwig Göransson.

Last May, he was among more than two dozen people charged under the state’s RICO act and accused of heading a criminal street gang. A number of the defendants took plea deals, including the rapper Gunna, while others had their cases severed from this trial.

Young Thug also faces drug and gun charges stemming from a search of his home. He has been held behind bars since his arrest last year and released his latest album, “Business is Business,” from jail over the summer.

He and five other people are standing trial in Fulton County, and all have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

On Monday, prosecutors laid out their case against the group, arguing that Young Thug’s label, Young Stoner Life Records or YSL, was in fact an Atlanta-based criminal street gang that was guilty of armed robbery, hijacking, motor-vehicle theft, possession of a machine gun and murder. The gang’s members all answered to Young Thug, the “proclaimed leader” of the group, Fulton County Chief Deputy District Attorney Adriane Love said.

“They created a crater in the middle of Fulton County’s Cleveland Avenue community that sucked in the youth, the innocence and even the lives of some of its youngest members,” Love said.

Defense attorneys concluded their opening statements Tuesday evening and prosecutors are expected to begin presenting their case with witness testimony Wednesday.

Attorney says Young Thug stands for ‘Truly Humble Under God’

In his opening statements, Steel laid out for jurors Young Thug’s life story, saying the rapper grew up in poverty in Atlanta with his 10 siblings, often sharing clothes with them to give the appearance he could afford more outfits. He focused his talent and work ethic on finding success as a rapper and pledged that if he did so he would help lift up those around him, Steel said.

The rap moniker “Young Thug” was a riff on the Tupac song “PYT (Playa Young Thugs)” and stands for “Truly Humble Under God,” Steel said. He also said the rapper’s Young Stoner Life record label was a reference to the fashion line Yves Saint Laurent, whose YSL acronym was emblazoned on the tight-fitting pants he favored.

Steel walked through and dismissed each of the “overt acts” in the indictment accusing Young Thug of wrongdoing and said there was no evidence to support the rapper’s involvement in the crimes.

He said prosecutors and police had “targeted” him, turning his charity for his neighborhood into a supposed conspiracy. For example, prosecutors alleged Young Thug rented a car that was used by YSL members in a murder. However, Steel said the rapper rented cars for people all the time and did not have control over their use.

“He’s not the crater. He’s trying to pull people out of poverty,” he said.

The prosecution also repeatedly referenced Young Thug’s own songs, highlighting lyrics that Love said “bore a very eerie significance” to real-life crimes. But Steel said the lyrics were simply a form of art and were not a confession.

“He’s not the head of a conspiracy. He’s not in a conspiracy. They are lyrics,” he said.

Other defendants attack RICO charges

Marquavius Huey, Deamonte Kendrick, Quamarvious Nichols, Rodalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwell are the other five defendants in the trial.

In their opening statements, multiple defense attorneys criticized the prosecution’s approach to the trial, which is expected to last months and could feature hundreds of witnesses. Nichols’ attorney told the court he will reserve his remarks until the state concludes its case.

“Poor, young, convenient; that’s all it takes to become the target of the state,” said Angela D’Williams, Ryan’s attorney. “This is not justice, this is a circus.”

E. Jay Abt, the attorney for Kendrick, who raps under the moniker Yak Gotti, said the prosecution was trying to confuse and distract the jury “like a bad magic trick.”

“If the case were direct and the evidence were true, it wouldn’t take long to try, because they’d bring to court someone to say ‘I saw Mr. Kendrick kill Donovan Thomas,’” Abt said. “They don’t have that. We’re gonna talk about what else they don’t have. They don’t have enough evidence to prove my client guilty of any of these charges.”

He further said the prosecution’s use of Kendrick’s rap lyrics was “un-American” and violated his freedom of speech and association.

“They want to present evidence that Mr. Kendrick is guilty by who he hangs out with, the color of the clothes that he wears, the symbols he makes with his hands and the beautiful lyrics that he writes and sings. Those aren’t actual crimes, that’s just free speech, and that is what is on trial here: the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Abt said.

Careton R. Matthews, who is defending Huey, also told the jury his client is innocent.

Stillwell’s attorney, Maxwell Schardt, delivered his opening statements Monday afternoon, saying his client was not guilty of murder and that his past work selling drugs was for his own benefit and “had nothing to do with YSL or anyone else involved in this case.”

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