YSL trial: Young Thug succeeded through music, not crime, lawyer says

Young Thug’s attorney on Tuesday told jurors a rags-to-riches story about how his client used his creativity and musical prowess to pull himself and his family out of poverty and squalor and became one of hip hop’s most influential artists.

During his two-and-a-half-hour remarks on the second day of trial, attorney Brian Steel refuted the state’s allegations that the Grammy-winning rapper, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, is also the co-founder and shot-caller of a violent criminal street gang.

Growing up as the 10th of 11 children in the Jonesboro South projects, Williams and his siblings rarely had enough to eat, Steel said. Williams shared a bedroom with four brothers while his six sisters shared another room, he said.

Defense attorney Brian Steel talks with the judge during opening statements in the YSL trial at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, November. 27, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com).

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Violence was part of daily life, Steel said. He said his client’s friends and relatives were regularly harassed by the police and that Williams was only 9 when he saw his older brother die of a gunshot wound.

“Jeffery Williams was born into an environment, a community, a society that was filled with repression, despair, hopelessness and helplessness,” Steel said.

He also said his client grew up idolizing rappers Tupac Shakur and Lil’ Wayne and he believed he could break the “generational hopelessness” he was born into by becoming either a professional athlete or musical artist.

“Jeffery choose the latter,” Steel told the jury.

He portrayed his client as a shy, hard-working musician who always remembered who his friends were and where he came from.

“Jeffrey has never been convicted of a crime,” Steel said. “He can vote. He can carry a gun. He can be on a jury.”

Steel also tried to cast doubt that the chart-topping rapper would need to resort to territorial gang warfare to elevate his status.

“He is at the top of his craft,” Steel said. “Jeffery has performed with the likes of Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, Sir Elton John, Drake, everybody in music.”

Atlanta rapper Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, listens to a meeting with the judge with his attorney, Keith Adams, before the opening statements of his trial at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.   (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Prosecutors allege Williams is the leader of “Young Slime Life,” which they contend is responsible for robberies, retaliatory shootings and at least three homicides.

“Hundreds of bullets were fired into cars, into homes and into people as a result of the rift Young Slime Life had with other people in the community,” lead prosecutor Adriane Love told jurors Monday.

The indictment charging Williams and others includes 191 overt acts that prosecutors say were committed in furtherance of the racketeering conspiracy over nearly a decade. Going through the ones that mentioned Williams, Steel argued that most did not directly involve him.

Steel also walked the jurors through several sets of lyrics the state plans to use as evidence in the case, arguing many of the verses were misconstrued or taken out of context.

“He speaks about killing 12 and people being shot and drugs and drive-by shootings. This is the environment that he grew up in, these are the people he knew, these are stories he knew,” Steel said. “These are the words that he rhymed.”

Steel also said Williams’ generosity is being used against him. In January 2015, Williams rented an Infiniti sedan for Kenneth Copeland to drive around his young child. Copeland is a YSL associate, that is also known as YSL Woody.

The vehicle was allegedly used in a drive-by shooting that killed Donovan Thomas, who was said to be a gang leader.

And after Copeland was arrested on weapons charges, Steel said, “he tells lie after lie after lie” to implicate Young Thug.

Leaked interrogation video posted online in February shows Copeland, who is a witness for the prosecution, speaking to Atlanta detectives for nearly four hours in October 2021. Chained to the floor throughout the duration of the interview, Copeland offered to provide the police information about their yearslong gang investigation in exchange for leniency.

Copeland is mentioned in the indictment, but wasn’t among the 28 alleged YSL associates charged last year. Glanville ordered an investigation into the source of the leaked video, and prosecutors raised concerns about the safety of their cooperating witnesses at trial.

After Steel’s opening statement, three other attorneys gave their opening remarks on behalf of their clients.

Attorney Angela D’Williams, whose client, Rodalius Ryan, is already serving a life sentence, said he was being used as an unnecessary “filler” to bolster the prosecution’s case.

“Sit back, enjoy the show, get some popcorn,” D’Williams told the jury. “Because this is not justice. This is a circus.”

Bruce Harvey, who represents Quamarvious Nichols, told the court he will reserve his openingsuntil the state has concluded its case.

Prosecutors are expected to call their first witness in the case on Wednesday morning.