Young Thug and former President Donald Trump don’t have much in common—besides their criminal exposure.
In an odd twist of fate, the famous rapper is facing the same criminal charge that’ hanging over the ex-president. And they’re both under threat from the same aggressive Georgia prosecutor: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
The criminal statute in question is known as Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or Georgia RICO. It’s the state equivalent of a notorious federal law originally designed to take down the mafia in the 1970s.
Georgia RICO is fast becoming a signature move for Willis, who’s already used RICO multiple times in massive, headline-grabbing cases. She may just be getting warmed up. The RICO case against Young Thug and over two-dozen of his alleged gang associates provides clues to the case she may bring against Trump and his inner circle as she investigates Trump’s efforts to flip his 2020 election loss into a victory.
“She’s more comfortable using the RICO statute than almost any other prosecutor in Georgia,” said Page Pate, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney who has defended clients charged in RICO cases, including one brought by Willis. “She’s unafraid of high-profile cases and the attention and scrutiny they bring.”
In a nutshell, Georgia RICO lets prosecutors target a group of people engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and tie them all up together. The series of multiple crimes is crucial: That lets prosecutors slot all the co-conspirators into one big case, and bring the group to trial all at once.
The Georgia law’s older cousin, federal RICO, is so hard to use that it’s become a punchline over the years among lawyers and former prosecutors, because non-experts so often suggest that a given case might be RICO—and they’re almost always wrong, because making a RICO case stick is way more complicated than many non-lawyers think.
But Willis happens to be an old hand at Georgia RICO. And the law gives her enormous firepower at sentencing: A conviction on a Georgia RICO charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars, and a minimum of five.
Young Thug’s mob boss problem
On Monday, Jeffrey Lamar Williams, who raps under the name Young Thug, was arrested in his Atlanta home and included in a 56-count indictment along with 27 other people.
The 88-page indictment says Williams and other associates in an alleged gang called Young Slime Life, or YSL, conspired to illegally obtain money and property through “a pattern of racketeering activity."
The indictment, which details an astonishing 182 individual acts in support of that broader conspiracy—including allegations of murder, armed violence, robbery, and the distribution of drugs—shows how a lot of different actions by a broad, diverse group of people can be lashed together into one grand RICO case.
Prosecutors accuse Williams, allegedly one of the gang’s three founding members, of renting a car used in the 2015 drive-by killing of a 26-year old in Atlanta, and allegedly having final say over the proposal to kill rapper YFN Lucci while he was in jail in Fulton County.
The indictment ties together so many different actions and people that it could turn out to be an overly aggressive use of the RICO statute, which jurors could ultimately reject as too broad, said Pate.
“Just being associated with the gang is not enough,” Pate said. “What she’s doing here borders on guilt by association.”
Yet on the other hand, lumping so much into one big case also lets the prosecution present a massive pile of evidence of wrongdoing to the jury in a single, coherent narrative.
In this case, some of that evidence includes using the rapper’s own lyrics against him. The indictment says Williams boosted YSL’s reputation in songs like “Anybody,” quoting these lines: “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body;” “I told them to shoot a hundred rounds,” and “I get all type of cash, I’m a general.”
Williams’ attorney Brian Steel has denied his client was involved in any criminal activity.
“Mr. Williams came from an incredibly horrible upbringing, and he has conducted himself throughout his life in a way that is just to marvel at,” Steel told the New York Times. “He’s committed no crime whatsoever.”
Trump’s mob boss problem
While Trump is being investigated by the same prosecutor for a possible RICO charge, the pattern of behavior is unsurprisingly different.
In Trump’s case, the question is whether Willis will argue that the broad pattern of activity committed by Trump and his associates included breaking enough laws to justify using a grand RICO.
Willis has already explicitly stated she’s investigating these events for a possible racketeering charge, in a letter sent to Georgia officials asking them to preserve evidence.
Some outside observers have said the facts appear to support a Georgia RICO charge.
“Based on our assessment, we conclude that Trump’s multiple reported acts directed at Georgia could subject him to prosecution under the state’s RICO statute, subject of course to the further development of the case by Fulton County,” said a group of legal scholars from the Brookings Institution in a report.
Fresh evidence indicates Willis may be casting a wide net in her Trump investigation. Some of the 16 Georgia Republicans who signed illegitimate electoral certificates that were sent to the National Archives are reportedly cooperating with Willis’ investigators. Willis’ team is trying to establish whether any of these pro-Trump electors in Georgia knew their actions could be part of a broader and potentially illegal scheme, CNN reported on Tuesday.
That line of investigation may mean that Willis is looking to see whether the facts will allow her to go big—and tie many different strands together to show a pattern of illegal activity that might fall under an overarching RICO case.
Pate said that in his opinion, the publicly known facts don’t yet appear to justify a grand RICO case against the former president—although the investigation is ongoing.
Pate said that whatever Willis decides to do, she won’t be deterred from charging a former president with a crime just because hers would be the first such case in history. If the case will stand up, she’ll go there, he said.
“She’s going to ask: ‘Can I get him?’” Pate said. “And if the answer is ‘yes,’ she’ll go after him.”