A potential juror entered the jury assembly hall on the seventh floor of the Fulton County courthouse and immediately noticed the news camera.
“Oh no, this is serious,” the woman said, glancing across the room at the 14 defendants seated alongside their attorneys.
She was one of nearly 600 Fulton residents who received a jury summons instructing her to report to court ahead of the trial involving rapper Young Thug and more than a dozen other alleged gang members. The artist, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, is accused of co-founding Young Slime Life and being one of its leaders, directing others to commit crimes in furtherance of what prosecutors say is a southwest Atlanta gang. His and the other defendants’ attorneys strongly deny all charges and say YSL is just a record label.
Potential jurors were divided into three groups of 200 last week, with each group spending a day watching a four-hour video of Chief Judge Ural Glanville reading the 95-page RICO indictment. The first two groups were there the longest, with proceedings going until well after 7 p.m.
The third group of about 200 finished up just after 5 p.m. Friday, but each potential juror was instructed to come back this week to fill out a 250-question form assessing their knowledge of the case and those involved.
One day last week, the video wasn’t shown to jurors until about 2:30 p.m.
“This is not a perfect process. If it were perfect, we would have come up here and we would have started at 9:01 a.m.,” Judge Glanville told the first group of prospective jurors.
Things didn’t go much better the following day, with delays causing the jury to not start the video until after lunch.
The process went more smoothly the day after that, with the video starting before lunch with some delays due to jurors returning late from breaks. Three jurors were missing after lunch, loud cheers and some boos could be heard once they return.
“This is not ‘Game of Thrones’ and the walk of shame,” Judge Glanville said as the missing three jurors finally came back from lunch.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@
To lighten the mood, he compared the four-hour video to the new “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a three-hour movie currently playing in theaters. By 4 p.m. one day last week, the jurors looked tired. Some had started reading books while others did all they could to stay awake. After hours of sitting patiently, the judge told them how long the trial is expected to last: six to nine months. Their eyes got big and their mouths fell open.
The trial is expected to last so long because 14 defendants are being tried simultaneously. Meanwhile, the state said it could call more than 350 witnesses.
The first panel of jurors returned to court Monday to complete the questionnaire and make their cases for why they shouldn’t be chosen to serve as jurors in the lengthy trial. Some were affluent attorneys making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Others were blue-collar workers living paycheck to paycheck.
Everyone said they simply couldn’t afford to miss nine months of work.
“It would devastate me,” explained Juror No. 24, a former music executive who now works as a film producer and director. “I have savings, but for rainy days. Not to get me through nine months. If I don’t work, I don’t eat.”
Some jurors told Glanville either them or their family members have medical issues that would prohibit them from serving on a jury for so long.
A total of 122 potential jurors from the first group of nearly 200 asked the judge to grant them a hardship exemption and excuse them from service. Other potential jurors were excused for such things as pre-paid trips, sick family members or medical reasons. Glanville also ordered Fulton deputies to find one juror who didn’t show up on Monday.
On Tuesday, Fulton County deputies told Glanville juror No. 64, who needed to report Monday, was in the Dominican Republic. Glanville ordered deputies to take her into custody as soon as she gets off the plane Wednesday night and take her to the Fulton County jail or to the courtroom, if court was still in session.
Of the 25 people questioned Monday afternoon, only three were instructed to return for additional questioning. The remaining 97 were asked to return Thursday to answer questions about their hardships.
Glanville said there have been problems transporting the defendants to and from the courthouse each day, including some fighting between them.
The longest trial in state history to date is the trial over the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal that lasted eight months.
Raquel Sabogal served on the jury in that trial. She said the experience was long but very educational, specially since she had never been a juror before.
“I kind of took it as a positive, although it was a long road to take. You learn from it, the process and how it works. Some of it can be a little dull or boring,” she said.
Sabogal realized the case was going to be a long one based on the number of defendants on trial and the number of witnesses that were set to be called. She didn’t expect it to take eight months though.
During the trial, Sabogal still tried to work at nights. Once things got rolling, the trial was on recess on Fridays so she could report to her job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I would continue reading my emails in the evening, I could do a certain amount of work,” she said. “I would report to work one day a week and kind of maintain. I had help and support from my team throughout the process.”
Credit: Hyosub Shin
Credit: Hyosub Shin
Sabogal said the jurors ended up becoming friends, celebrating birthdays, grieving family deaths and just enjoyed spending time together. It’s been a while since they’ve gotten together but Sabogal said they were a team.
“We became friends because you meet people from all different type of backgrounds, different parts of the city, different people and you become friends because you are all on the same boat together,” she said.
Jury selection is expected to continue until the end of February with opening statements to take place shortly after jurors are selected.