On Monday, a grand jury in Atlanta indicted Young Thug, Gunna, and 26 other people for their alleged involvement with YSL, or “Young Slime Life,” which prosecutors described as a “criminal street gang.” In an 88-page, 56-count indictment reviewed by VICE, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office alleges that since 2013, members of YSL have committed murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and a litany of other offenses—all with the goal of “enhancing the reputation, power and territory” of YSL. All 28 defendants named in the indictment have been accused of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO. After Thug was arrested and Gunna turned himself in, both are currently being held in Fulton County jail.
The indictment contains a number of allegations against Young Thug (born Jeffery Williams) specifically, including that he rented a car used in the 2015 murder of Donavan Thomas, Jr., and that two defendants once discussed obtaining Thug’s “permission” to try to kill rapper YFN Lucci while he was incarcerated in Fulton County jail. Notably, the indictment also repeatedly points to Thug’s song lyrics and social media posts as evidence of his involvement with YSL, which prosecutors claim he co-founded. Time and again, prosecutors cite photos of Thug wearing YSL gear and throwing up YSL gang signs in photos and videos online, along with lines he’s recorded—e.g., “YSL won’t fold, pick his ass off from the balcony, YSL, wipe a n— nose”—as proof that Thug is a member of the enterprise. (It’s worth noting that Young Slime Life shares initials with Thug’s record label, Young Stoner Life, an imprint of 300 Entertainment.) Thug’s attorney, Brian Steel, wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone that Thug “vehemently denies the allegations lodged against him” and “looks forward to the opportunity to defend this case in court.”
Georgia’s RICO Act is similar to federal RICO law, which was designed to help prosecutors fight organized crime and take down organizations like the Mafia. It allows prosecutors to charge individuals who may not have directly committed a crime themselves, but were tangentially involved in a criminal enterprise. Essentially, as long as someone intentionally and knowingly contributed to organized, criminal activity in some way, they can be hit with RICO charges—even if they never, say, pulled a trigger or robbed a bank. In Georgia, a RICO conviction carries a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 20.
The RICO case against Young Thug, Gunna (born Sergio Kitchens), and their co-defendants is a doozy. For help unpacking it, VICE called up Jeff Grell, an attorney who’s been litigating RICO cases since the 1990s, wrote a textbook about the law, and teaches a class on it at the University of Minnesota Law School. He weighed in on how the case against YSL might play out, and walked us through the intricacies of the controversial law it hinges on.
VICE: What did you make of the indictment, and how strong is the Fulton County DA’s case against YSL, in your view?
Jeff Grell: If these defendants did what they’re accused of doing, it’s kind of a slam dunk. Not that any RICO case is easy to prove. But when you’re dealing with blatant criminal activity, like what they’re accused of—murder, aggravated assault, drug dealing, attempted murder—all these things are, clearly, acts of racketeering. So if they did those things, you’re a long way home as a prosecutor.
How perilous of a position would you say Young Thug, Gunna, and the rest of these defendants are in right now?
It’s hard to say that universally for all the defendants. If you look at Williams [Young Thug] in particular, he’s accused of some pretty serious stuff, but he wasn’t accused of murdering anybody. So for someone like him, he’s in a different boat than the people who are actually accused of murder. A lot of how he’s connected to the conspiracy is [by] posting videos and writing songs and lyrics that tie him to YSL. That’s one thing RICO has been criticized for in the past: You don’t have to do a lot to connect yourself to the conspiracy and to be held liable as a conspirator. Just promoting YSL, legitimizing them, helping their image or their street cred, that’s enough—if his intent was to advance and to further facilitate their criminal agenda. A lot of these criminal cases boil down to intent. The basic idea is that [what you’re accused of] doesn’t need to be a criminal act. You just need to take affirmative action, knowing that it’s going to somehow help the criminal organization. And in that way, you’re kind of adopting or embracing the criminal objectives of the enterprise.
Williams’ lawyers and other defendants will probably argue they were intending to look like tough guys, they were intending to look like street thugs, but they weren’t really street thugs. He’s a famous rapper. Why would he be screwing around with this kind of stuff?
But from the prosecutor’s standpoint, it’s like, look: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there’s a lot of smoke here. Not just the song lyrics, but renting the car, and other conversations that he’s apparently recorded having with some of the other gang members about engaging in criminal activity, essentially planning the crimes—these are all things that [prosecutors can use to argue], “How could he not know what he was doing?” As a prosecutor, you would argue that, you know, “When was the last time you talked to somebody about a clearly criminal act and helped them plan it out?” Normal people don’t do that sort of thing.
Why would prosecutors want to pursue RICO charges against these defendants as opposed to charging them individually for the crimes they’re accused of committing?
RICO was designed to get at this idea that you don’t have to get your hands bloody to be convicted of criminal activity. You go back to somebody like the Godfather. You don’t need to be the person who’s actually pulling the trigger. You don’t need to be the person who’s actually on the street corner selling drugs. You don’t need to be anywhere close to criminal activity. But if you’re operating and managing an enterprise that you know is engaged in this criminal conduct, [you can be hit with RICO charges]. For a traditional conspiracy charge, you have to have pretty direct evidence of [someone saying], “Go kill this person,” or, “Here’s how I would kill this person.” It’s pretty specific, whereas a RICO claim is a lot more general. It’s just knowingly operating and managing an enterprise that engages in a pattern of racketeering. You don’t have to do any crimes yourself; you don’t have to know specifically what’s going on; you don’t have to benefit from what’s going on.
In a case like this, when you look at somebody like Williams, he’s accused of some pretty serious stuff, but not as serious as some of the other defendants. A lot of what he’s accused of doing isn’t necessarily criminal. If you looked at it in a vacuum, you can sing about anything you want to sing about. Martin Scorsese has made a lot of movies about killing people and the Italian Mafia; nobody’s claiming that he’s part of the Italian Mafia, and he’s not getting charged under RICO. So it’s not just about the content of his songs and videos. It’s about his intention and whether he’s intending to further the criminal objectives of YSL. That’s the critical point.
Aside from what you’ve already described, are there other things RICO allows prosecutors to do that they can’t do without RICO?
Well, RICO gets a lot of publicity. You probably wouldn’t be talking to me if they had just charged these guys for aggravated assault or whatever. If you’re trying to put people on notice that this kind of conduct isn’t going to be tolerated, even from big musical artists, you want to get it out in the media. So that’s one big advantage of RICO from a prosecutor’s standpoint.
Another big advantage is that there can be some efficiencies to trying a big case like this, rather than having 28 smaller cases, just in terms of allocation of resources. Prosecutors’ offices don’t have unlimited resources, contrary to what people think. And then when you look at it from a proof standpoint, if you’ve got all of these defendants together, as a prosecutor, you’ve just got that much more smoke. You’ve got all of these people. They’re all communicating with each other; they’re all childhood friends; they all grew up in the same neighborhood; they’ve all got all these connections. You want to build up the [idea that this is a criminal] enterprise. And so it’s helpful, just circumstantially, to get a jury thinking, There’s all of these people, they’re all interconnected, and it’s all coordinated criminal activity.
As a defense attorney, you want to sever your clients from the bigger prosecution if you can. You want to argue that there’s not enough commonality—that it’s a matter of due process, and it’s unfair to have your client associated with all the other wrongdoing that’s going on. There will undoubtedly be a lot of motions like that, where defense attorneys will say, “It’s not fair, because it’s guilt by association. My client is accused of doing two out of the 300 things that are listed in the indictment. My client’s just gonna get lost in the shuffle, and they’re just gonna get convicted. Literally, guilt by association.” That’s the argument that defendants make. And, of course, there’s some truth to that.
That’s one reason why prosecutors like to use RICO: It does enable you to paint a much bigger picture. Depending upon your point of view, some people are going to say it’s a more truthful picture to present it this way. A defense attorney is going to say, “No, I don’t want you to focus on this whole big umbrella. I just want you to focus on my guy, or my gal. Maybe they screwed up, but they’re not part of this enterprise. And they shouldn’t be found guilty just because they went to junior high with somebody.”
What are some of the challenges prosecutors face when they’re trying to successfully convict people on RICO charges?
A lot of it is getting people to cooperate. In this indictment, there are a few claims of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice and that sort of thing. That’s very common when you’re dealing with illegitimate enterprises like this is alleged to be: People are afraid to talk, and usually for good reason. That’s a huge challenge. The other challenge is just that these are complicated cases. The jury is going to get a stack of instructions that’s really, really thick. They have to go through and try to understand all those instructions; they have to pay attention to the evidence; they have to make their conclusions based on applying the facts and the evidence to the law. As a prosecutor, you have the burden of proof. And you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt—not just a preponderance of the evidence, not 50/50—it has got to be way over on the guilt side. So that’s always a concern for prosecutors: making sure you can articulate this very, very complicated legal theory to the jury, and you can get the evidence to the jury so that they can tie all the pieces together and arrive at a conviction.
As a defense attorney, you can just knock out one pillar that’s holding up the structure, and the whole structure is going to fall down. As a prosecutor, you’ve got to build the whole building. And you’ve got to know it’s got to stay built.
I want to talk a little bit about Young Thug specifically. From what you saw in the indictment, how bad do things look for him, and how compromised does he seem to be?
I haven’t seen any evidence. I doubt anybody outside of the prosecutor’s office has seen the evidence. It appears as though they’ve got recordings; maybe they had phones tapped and listening devices. And, obviously, he posted a lot of stuff on social media.
He’s screwed in one way because he’s going to have to spend a lot of money in attorneys’ fees. Even if he’s totally innocent, and even if he wins, he’s going to have to spend a ton of money. And then, if you believe what the indictment says, if there’s evidence to support all of that, he’s—I mean, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. If the evidence is strong, as a defense attorney looking at the writing on the wall, you would want to advise your client to take a plea deal and try to get as much of a reduced sentence as possible. But, again, you’d have to review all that evidence before you can even advise your client on whether to take a plea deal or not. And then, even if you have that opinion as a lawyer, it’s always your client’s call. Williams will have an army of lawyers focused on him for as long as he wants. So you would expect him to fight it—and the longer he fights it, probably the better plea deal they’ll get.
Just reading the indictment, I, as a lawyer, would rather be on the prosecutor’s side than the defense side. But, of course, we don’t have any access to exculpatory evidence that the defense may have, and we don’t know their side of the story.
One thing that jumped out to me in the indictment is that prosecutors claim Young Thug rented a car that was then used in a murder. If that’s true, how damning is that for him, and how worried should he be about that?
Well, again, it goes to his intent. Did he know it was going to be used in a murder? There would have to be evidence that not only did he rent the car, but he rented the car knowing that it was certainly or highly likely going to be used in a crime. Now, that particular crime, not necessarily. Maybe he thought that they were going to go rob the guy or something; maybe he didn’t know the guy was going to get murdered. But if you intended to advance the criminal objective, then you’re screwed. So it’s going to boil down to that question of intent.
I was also struck by how frequently prosecutors brought up Young Thug’s lyrics, and photos of him wearing red or green, or wearing YSL gear, or making YSL gang signs. Why do the prosecutors play that up so much, and are those things that can be used as evidence at trial?
People have been convicted on less evidence. These conspiracy charges are just really, really broad. I’ve gotten calls from people who are in prison who basically sat down and had a beer or a cup of coffee and, allegedly, were just sort of discussing, hypothetically, better ways to commit crime; better ways to launder money; better ways to deal drugs. And they might have been retired for 10 years. But they sit down and they have a conversation that lasts a few minutes with a friend, and all of a sudden, they’re convicted of conspiring. As a prosecutor, you include all of that, because it’s just another nail in the coffin. From the prosecutor’s standpoint, it’s: “How can he claim he doesn’t intend to further facilitate the YSL objective, when every song he writes, every lyric he writes, every reference is to YSL and their criminal agenda?”
How do you think Williams’ defense attorneys are going to fight these allegations, and what legal strategies might they deploy?
Not being a member of his defense team, it’s hard to imagine the conversations that will occur and the strategies that will be disregarded and implemented. But I would think that, as a defense attorney, you would point out that these are song lyrics. I think that analogy to Martin Scorsese [is apt]: When they tried John Gotti, who was the head of the Gambino crime family, why wasn’t Scorsese on trial? Or Francis Ford Coppola [who directed The Godfather]? As a defense attorney, I would try to make it almost an issue about First Amendment rights. You’re free as an artist to use whatever inspires you to create your art. If he gets his inspiration from these gangs, it’s no different than Scorsese or anybody else getting their inspiration from the Mafia or other criminal activities. So, as a defense attorney, I would probably go down that road to a certain extent.
I’m also sure that [a defense attorney] would [use] that guilt by association argument: “You’re just trying to convict him because he knows these people, or grew up with these people, or hangs out with these people.”
While Young Thug is accused of, essentially, being an accessory to murder, Gunna is accused mostly of drug possession with intent to distribute. How would you compare the spot Gunna is in to the spot Young Thug is in?
Whether it’s Kitchens [Gunna] or anybody else who’s charged with lesser crimes—drug possession, that sort of thing—if I were their lawyer, I would be like, “Plead it out, man.” I mean, they’re alleging five illegal drug transactions; you can maybe plead it out to three, and may not have to do any time if it’s your first offense. Especially if you’re a guy that is relatively insulated by lack of knowledge—if he doesn’t have that much that ties him into the overall criminal activity—as a defense attorney, that’s the kind of person you try to plead out, and plead out very quickly. Especially if they can say, “Yeah, I’ll testify truthfully, because literally all I did was buy drugs from this guy. That’s the extent of my knowledge. I will go to trial, and I will testify truthfully about that, but I didn’t know anything more about it, so I don’t have anything to hide.”
How could any of these defendants put themselves in a position to serve less time in prison by cooperating with the prosecution? And is that something the prosecution often pushes for in RICO cases—basically, to get someone to flip?
Oh, yeah. There’s always a big push to get an insider, somebody that really has firsthand knowledge of how the group worked. And, ideally, you want to get somebody that’s low on the hierarchy: somebody that’s got all the knowledge, but really was more of a foot soldier or clerical worker. They knew how everything worked, but they’re not somebody that was directing things, so they’re not as culpable as the John Gotti-type characters. You always want to get somebody like that to flip because they can save you a ton of work as a prosecutor. They can, first of all, tell you how the thing works. They can direct you to where things are stored, whether it’s on computers, or whether it’s in warehouses, or whatever. [They can tell you] who maintained the property in question, or who the person running the computer system is, which might lead you to another witness that you can get to cooperate with you. If you get somebody to flip, that’s huge. But in a case like this, you’re dealing with people who are accused of doing some pretty egregious things, and witnesses are probably going to be afraid of them. So it might be hard to get somebody to flip.
How long might it be before the case against YSL actually goes to trial?
I would say it’s probably going to be at least a year before this thing goes to trial. If you’re a guy like Williams who has resources, every month you delay is a month that you’re not in prison. If you made bail, you’re out. While you’re under indictment, you like time, because as long as you aren’t convicted, you can’t go to prison. There are a lot of people that spend money for that reason. So I think it’s going to be a while.
Drew Schwartz is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.