OPINION: Young Thug’s rich. Why mess with crime, lawyer argues

Atlanta rapper Young Thug sits next to his defense attorney Brian Steel during jury selection in the “Young Slime Life” gang case at the Fulton County Courthouse Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Atlanta rapper Young Thug sits next to his defense attorney Brian Steel during jury selection in the “Young Slime Life” gang case at the Fulton County Courthouse Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com) (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

The lawyer for rapper Young Thug came out Tuesday with the most obvious defense: The artist officially known as Jeffrey Williams is worth millions, has recorded with Drake and Sir Elton John and has appeared on “The Tonight Show.” So why on Earth would he waste his time directing a crew of criminal lowlifes?

In a two-and-a-half hour opening statement, attorney Brian Steel spun a narrative of a shy, malnourished lad with rotten teeth and low self esteem who created a persona to became one of the world’s leading entertainers.

Through sheer force of inner drive and personality, his client, the second youngest in an impoverished family of 11 kids, created a character that reflected the violent “depression, despair and hopelessness” he was born into. In essence, his stage presence is a caricature.

Steel went on and on about his client’s success, about his decade-long string of hits, of being on the cover of the Rolling Stone, of his Grammy Awards.

“He is not sitting there telling people to kill other people,” the lawyer told the jury. “He doesn’t need their money. Jeffrey is worth tens of millions of dollars.”

The attorney said Young Thug reasoned “that if he ever made it, he’d help his family, himself and many others out of this endless cycle of helplessness.”

Young Thug performs at the Bud Light Seltzer stage during the final day of Lollapalooza in Grant Park on Aug. 1, 2021, in Chicago. (Vashon Jordan Jr./Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

And, if you buy what Steel is selling, that’s what got the rapper in trouble: If you surround yourself with people who are desperate and lawless, some of it will blow back on you.

Consider Kenneth Copeland, who is a low-level rapper known as Lil Woody, a fellow who got himself in trouble with the law and who, Steel says, ratted out Young Thug. It all goes back to the January 2015 drive-by slaying of Donovan Thomas outside a barbershop in Atlanta.

Prosecutors say Thomas was a rival gang leader who Young Thug wanted whacked. So, according to the indictment, Young Thug rented an Infiniti to be the drive-by hit car.

It appears Copeland cut a deal with authorities and is expected to testify against Young Thug, according to a leaked tape interview with police.

Steel says that Copeland, ”who leaches off Jeffrey Williams,” came to Young Thug three days before the hit on Thomas. Copeland asked to borrow one of the rapper’s rental cars because his young child and his mom were in town. Young Thug offered him a Corvette he had sitting around but Copeland wanted something roomier. Hence, the Infiniti sedan.

Three days later, the car was involved in a hit. Steel says Williams had nothing to do with it, that all that bluster, bravado and rapping about street violence was just part of the act.

In 2011, 20-year-old Young Thug released a mixtape “I came from nothing.”

“And, yes, he talks about killing (police) and people being shot and drive-by shootings,” said Steel. “These are the stories he knows. These are phrases in a song. This is art. This is freedom of speech in America.”

Prosecutors will bring several of Young Thug’s songs into evidence, saying they’re a lyrical road map to his alleged gang’s misdeeds.

“The defendant’s words tell you there is a (criminal) enterprise,” Fulton County prosecutor Adriane Love noted a day earlier in her opening statements. “Lyrics that have an uncanny similarity to very true and very specific deeds.”

Prosecutors allege that even though he was worth millions, he couldn’t pass up a good deal. During her opening, Love told jurors Young Thug had a “tight relationship” with Marquavius Huey, an accused armed robber and carjacker also now on trial.

“He reached out to Mr. Williams saying, ‘Hey, I got this stolen item, you want dibs on it?’ " Love told jurors.

On Monday, Love kicked off her long-awaited opening statement (motions hearings started before Christmas 2022 and jury selection started in January) with a little 19th century poetry from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

Fulton County Chief Deputy District Attorney Adriane Love speaks to the jury during the opening statement of Atlanta rapper Young Thug's 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

“Now this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;

And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

The prosecutor said Young Thug’s alleged gang “created a crater on Cleveland Avenue that sucked in the youth, the innocence and even some of the lives of its youngest members.” The crater imagery came up several times.

Nah, says Steel. The bad boy image was all an act.

An alleged associate of Young Thug has been charged with shooting up the tour bus of the rapper Lil Wayne in 2015.

Before that happened, Lil Wayne dissed Young Thug’s music and called him gay. Soon, Thugger put out a video where he was surrounded by dudes with guns, saying “Come to my concert, let’s see what happens.”

This, Steel argues, was simply for show. Management told him to do this, his lawyer argues. A good rivalry helps business.

“It’s branding,” said Steel.

Kind of like professional wrestling, I suppose.

So, now the trial has finally started, jurors will have months — and months — to decide which side of Young Thug is real: the wolfpack leader, or the skinny kid with bad teeth.