Young Thug, others facing gang charges as months-long trial set to begin

600 jury summonses mailed to Fulton residents
Young Thug (center) speaks with attorney Keith Adams during a pre-trial hearing. The Atlanta rapper, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was one of 28 people charged in a sweeping Fulton County gang indictment this year. (Arvin Temkar /



Young Thug (center) speaks with attorney Keith Adams during a pre-trial hearing. The Atlanta rapper, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was one of 28 people charged in a sweeping Fulton County gang indictment this year. (Arvin Temkar /

A win against crime in Atlanta. That’s how Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis characterized the sweeping May 2022 indictment charging more than two dozen alleged Young Slime Life gang members, including popular Atlanta rapper Young Thug.

After a series of plea deals and severances, 14 of the 28 people charged in the 95-page indictment are set to stand trial, with jury selection scheduled to begin Wednesday. Six defendants will be tried separately and eight others have taken plea deals.

Of the remaining defendants, the most notable is Young Thug, the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist whose real name is Jeffery Williams. The 31-year-old is accused of co-founding YSL and being one of its leaders, directing others to commit crimes in furtherance of what prosecutors say is a southwest Atlanta gang. His attorneys strongly deny the charges and say YSL is just a record label.

Keith Adams (left), is one of the attorneys representing Atlanta rapper Young Thug in the YSL gang case. (Arvin Temkar /


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“It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is, if you come to Fulton County, Georgia, and you commit crimes and, certainly, if those crimes are in furtherance of a street gang, you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office,” Willis said at a news conference announcing the indictment.

Some defendants are already serving life prison sentences for unrelated convictions, while others face murder, gun and drug charges laid out in the 65-count indictment.

The indictment cites numerous rap lyrics by Williams and other artists as “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy,” though it remains to be seen how heavily prosecutors may rely on such evidence during their case. Backlash to Willis’ decision to use the rappers’ lyrics against them was swift, with numerous popular artists and producers declaring that “hip-hop is on trial.”

On Nov. 1, a paid advertisement signed by music groups, record labels and artists ran in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times, asking prosecutors to stop using lyrics as evidence in criminal trials. The ad urged passage of the RAP Act, which seeks to prohibit lyrics from being used in federal proceedings.

Willis has defended her decision, saying, “If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it.”

“People can continue to be angry about it,” she said at an August news conference. “I have some legal advice: don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used.”

Defendants Javaris Bradford, Justin Cobb, Deamonte Kendrick, Demise McMullen and Shannon Stillwell are charged with murder in a 2015 deadly drive-by shooting that killed alleged rival gang member Donovan Thomas Jr. Only Kendrick and Stillwell will be tried next week, however, since Bradford and McMullen don’t have attorneys and Cobb has not been taken into custody.

Attorney Anastasios Manettas speaks to his client Miles Farley at hearing on the YSL case in Atlanta on Thursday, December 22, 2022. (Arvin Temkar /


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Prosecutors allege Williams rented the car that was used in Thomas’ killing, and one defendant who accepted a plea deal acknowledged the rapper gave him and other alleged YSL associates cash to “lay low” after the deadly shooting.

Co-defendants Miles Farley, Damekion Garlington, Quamarvious Nichols and Stillwell are all charged in the March shooting of Shymel Drinks in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood. Drinks, 23, died after being shot in a car parked near an I-20 bridge.

‘Take it to Trial’

The trial itself is set to begin Monday. With 14 defendants and the state expected to call about 300 witnesses, Chief Judge Ural Glanville estimated the trial could take up to nine months. That’s longer than the eight-month racketeering trial over the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.

Chief Judge Ural Glanville speaks during a pre-trial hearing for Atlanta rapper Young Thug. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Willis was the lead prosecutor in that case, which targeted educators accused of changing students’ standardized test scores. No stranger to the state’s RICO statute, Willis and her team are also looking into whether former President Donald Trump and his allies broke the law in trying to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was first enacted to fight corruption and organized crime. Georgia’s law, passed in 1980, has enabled state prosecutors to seek it in cases involving gang leaders, public officials and an assisted-suicide group.

The APS cheating trial remains the longest trial in Georgia history. In that case, 12 defendants ended up going to trial and 11 were convicted.

Attorney Gerald Griggs was one of the defense attorneys representing educators in the 2014-15 APS trial. He called the experience rewarding, but said he never wants to put himself through something like that again.

“You can’t take any other cases. You can maintain the cases you have but you can’t take anyone coming in because you have first appearances, you have arraignments, you got trial calendars, none of which you will be able to appear for because you are on trial,” said Griggs, who is the Georgia NAACP president. “It can bankrupt and destroy your practice. If you don’t have cases coming in, you don’t have money coming in.”

Griggs said they initially thought the APS trial would take just five months, but that state prosecutors kept introducing evidence. Griggs said it’s important for defense attorneys representing YSL defendants to get their finances in order before trial, especially sole practitioners.

Attorney Bob Rubin, whose client, Wunnie Lee, pleaded guilty in exchange for time served and probation, was part of the team representing former elementary school principal Dana Evans. Rubin said they knew it would be a long case, but never expected the trial to last eight months.

He said it’s nearly impossible to sustain a practice while on a trial that long and that he was lucky to have law partners who could help pick up some of the slack. Many of the lawyers representing YSL defendants don’t have that option.

Defense attorney Bob Rubin objects during the months-long trial over the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

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“The financial strain on them it’s going to be pretty extensive,” said Rubin, who was one of Travis McMichael’s attorneys in the state trial over Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. “You can meet with people at night and get hired on cases but you can’t do the work that each case deserves until the trial is over.”

Finding a jury

One of the biggest challenges prosecutors and defense attorneys face is selecting jurors who can dedicate nearly a year of their lives to this case.

Rubin said it’s impossible to expect a jury to give a case that long the attention it deserves and expects the number of people who can actually afford to serve for six to nine months will be limited.

“If the judge excuses them for the hardship, then you are, by definition, losing a whole section of the population that may be willing to listen to both sides with an open mind in a different way (than) people who are either retired or salaried or older who have resources would look at it,” Rubin said.

Officials sent out 600 jury summonses to Fulton County residents ahead of the high-profile trial. Potential jurors have been told to report to the courthouse in three groups, with 200 people coming in Wednesday, 200 Thursday and the remaining 200 on Friday.

(R-L) Attorney Maxwell Schardt speaks to his client Shannon Stillwell at a hearing on the YSL case in Atlanta on Thursday, December 22, 2022. (Arvin Temkar /


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Trial consultant Jill Huntley Taylor said for those selected, being a juror will be a “full-time job” until the trial is over. Those most likely to able to participate will be retired, relatively well-off financially or at least have employers that will continue paying their wages while they’re away.

“Generally we see judges excuse potential jurors who have childcare issues or hourly workers who don’t get paid if they don’t work,” Taylor said. “The ability to stay on a trial that long and not have life interrupt that is definitely a concern for a trial of this length.”

Fulton County jurors are paid a stipend of $25 a day, which barely covers the cost of parking in the deck across from the courthouse. According to court website, checks aren’t mailed to jurors until 21 to 30 business days after the completion of their service.

Griggs said getting a fair and impartial jury was one of his main concerns for the APS trial. He is also concerned about the media coverage the YSL case has gotten, saying that could result in a jury that has already made up its mind before hearing any evidence.

“It’s going to be very difficult to find a juror that comes in with a blank slate that’s going to be willing to listen to the evidence without having already prejudged it,” Griggs said.