OPINION: Delays. IT woes. Court porn: Fulton’s Gunna Fulton in gang case

I went to a Fulton County courtroom for a gang conspiracy case last week and a porn show broke out.

If the hearings in the Young Thug & Co. case are any indication, then the racketeering trial set for next month against the star rapper and a host of co-defendants could be a legalistic goat rodeo.

Fulton has long suffered a clogged jail and court system. The case against Jeffrey Williams (AKA Young Thug) will be a stress test on the ability of the system to carry off a big multi-defendant RICO case starring a renowned rapper.

Back in 2014, Fulton County conducted a RICO trial against 12 educators in the test-cheating case. The trial posed a logistical problem of where to squeeze a dozen teachers and administrators and their legal teams in the same courtroom. That, as well as trying to keep jurors engaged and keeping straight who allegedly did what to whom. It turned out to be almost eight months, including six months of testimony.

This time, the defendants are not middle-class educators. No, this collection of defendants is different. It includes an accused jail shanker, convicted gunmen, an accused cop shooter, known gang members and alleged witness intimidators. They must be hauled in from jail each day and will need an army of security to keep anything crazy from occurring.

Last week’s hearing brought at least 25 deputies into the courtroom and had a phalanx of military-clad agents in the halls.

If you are able to get through security and into court, spectators are given a blue wristband, which is what you get at nightclubs and Six Flags. And there’s no gum chewing in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville, who’s a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Last week’s hearing was to start at 9 a.m. Early on, Mr. Thug, clad in a business suit, and two other defendants were led into the courtroom, while some 20 other co-defendants watched from jail on Zoom. And then, nothing. For hours. Later, we learned the technology linking the jail with the courtroom wasn’t working.

The proceedings were moved to a bigger courtroom to accommodate perhaps 16 handcuffed prisoners who were hauled in from jail. About 2 p.m., Young Thug’s attorney, Brian Steel started arguing that police wrongly confiscated a cellphone from his client back in 2015 and never returned it after a judge long-ago ruled the cops erred in taking it.

Suddenly, as the ever-serious Steel spoke, loud sounds erupted from the court video screens, as did images of several very nekkid dudes, accompanied by the words “Free Young Thug.” My first thought was Steel was introducing an unorthodox exhibit into the case. But a look at Judge Glanville’s bewildered scowl made it clear the court was getting punked.

The hearing came a day after an unexpected guilty plea by Sergio Kitchens, better known as the rapper Gunna. Prosecutors labeled him as a leader of the YSL (Young Slime Life) gang. However, he wasn’t named in many of the heavy-duty criminal activities named in the indictment.

Two years ago, he and Young Thug cut a video entitled “Take it to Trial.” However, Gunna and his legal team figured the risk of a multi-year prison stint wasn’t worth the risk if convicted. He told the court he thought YSL was a collection of music artists, although he admitted some YSL members were up to criminal activities.

It’s almost like being in Mafia’s entertainment wing. He was released with nearly eight months time served.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Afterwards, Gunna put out a statement: “I have NOT made any statements, have NOT been interviewed, have NOT cooperated, have NOT agreed to testify or be a witness for or against any party in the case.” Which is a way of trying to salvage a rap career by saying, “I am NOT, NOT, NOT, NOT a rat.”

Don Samuel, one of his attorneys, said his release without having to promise cooperation demonstrates prosecutors never really had anything on him. Samuel complained that defense attorneys were not able to attack the lack of real evidence against him in bond hearings.

So far, five defendants have plead out and Samuel expects perhaps 10 more to do the same, leaving maybe a dozen for trial. In RICO cases, all defendants risk getting tarred by a sea of charges.

Jay Abt, whose client, Deamonte Kendrick, a rapper known as Yak Gotti, said bringing together a roomful of defendants in a months-long case “brings in too many chances of this being a mistrial. What if someone gets COVID?”

Attorney Ashleigh Merchant represented Martinez Arnold, a rapper known as Lil Duke, who also cut a deal and was released. He hasn’t gotten his $200,000 Mercedes returned yet.

She called the proceedings a “hot mess,” saying the court is keeping the cases all lumped together to pressure defendants to plead out. She said her client already pleaded guilty in 2016 to an earlier drive-by shooting, one listed in the current RICO case. That shooting was in retaliation for another shooting.

Lil Duke was released after his earlier guilty plea with time-served and even got First Offender Status.

First Offender Status for a drive-by?

“You can get deals in the assembly-line justice system that is Fulton County,” Merchant told me. “Fulton is a very different place.”

Yes, it is.