Judge rules rap lyrics can 'conditionally' be used as evidence in Young Thug trial

ByDeena Zaru ABCNews logo
Friday, November 10, 2023

The judge presiding over the trial of rapper Young Thug, who is facing gang-related charges in Atlanta, Georgia, ruled Thursday that rap lyrics can be admitted by prosecutors as evidence in this case on a conditional basis.

Judge Ural Glanville ruled that 17 sets of lyrics mentioned in the indictment - lines that are performed by Young Thug and other co-defendants in this case - can be preliminarily admitted in the trial, denying a motion filed by Young Thug's attorney last December arguing against the use of lyrics in the sweeping RICO indictment.

"I'm conditionally admitting those pending lyrics, depending upon - or subject to a foundation that is properly laid by the state or the proponent that seeks to admit that evidence," Glanville said.

The judge added that if prosecutors intend to include additional lyrics as part of the alleged evidence in this case, they can be submitted for the judge's review before the trial begins later this month.

"I would just ask the state or just remind the state if any other lyrics are sought to be admitted that we I'd have to go through this same analysis," Glanville said.

The judge's decision comes one day after attorneys for Young Thug and two other co-defendants argued that the use of lyrics as alleged evidence, in this case, violates the artist's freedom of speech and effectively denies rap music the status of art.

Brian Steel, the attorney for Young Thug whose legal name is Jeffrey Lamar Williams, argued during a late night hearing on Wednesday that lyrics are a form of artistic expression and should not be used as evidence of an individual's true state of mind. He also said that not all lyrics performed by Young Thug were even written by the artist himself.

"[Prosecutors] are targeting the right to free speech," Steel said during arguments on Wednesday.

But prosecutors argued that the lyrics are relevant to the alleged crimes laid out in the indictment.

"The lyrics are being used to prove the nature of YSL as a racketeering enterprise, the expectations of YSL as a criminal street gang," said Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Mike Carlson in court on Wednesday.

Young Thug was among 28 individuals named in this indictment who are allegedly associated with the Atlanta-based Young Slime Life (YSL) - a gang that prosecutors allege Young Thug founded in 2012. But YSL, which is also the acronym for "Young Stoner Life," is the name of the rapper's label - an imprint of 300 Entertainment. The label is not named in the indictment. Lyrics were listed in the indictment as part of the alleged evidence.

Glanville said on Thursday that he conducted an analysis of the lyrics based on the First Amendment argument and considered Steel's argument against lyrics being used to suggest an individual's propensity to behave in a certain way, but determined that he is "dissuaded as to the propensity argument" because "this evidence is not being admitted saying that Mr. Williams and the others did these things before so they would do them again."

ABC News reached out to Steel for comment following the judge's ruling on the use of lyrics.

The ruling comes nearly a year after Steel argued in the motion, which was obtained by ABC News, that the prosecution's use of the hip-hop star's lyrics, in this case, is "racist and discriminatory" because it could prejudice a jury against his client and prevent him from having a fair trial - a right that is protected by the Sixth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

In his ruling, Glanville said that "as it pertains to the issue of mental state," expert witnesses during the trial "may draw conclusions about intent as long as they don't state that this is the defendant's intent."

While the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings is common in the U.S., it is a controversial practice that has gained national attention through this case largely due to the star power of Young Thug.

This case has sparked a movement across the music industry known as "Protect Black Art" that has fueled efforts by freedom of speech advocates and lawmakers on the federal and state level to introduce legislation that would limit this practice. ABC News explored this issue earlier this year in the documentary, "Rap Trap: Hip-Hop on Trial," which is streaming on Hulu.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office is prosecuting this case, repeatedly defended the use of lyrics in this case.

"I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I'm going to use it," Willis told reporters during a press conference on Aug. 29. 2022. "I'm not targeting anyone. You do not get to commit crimes in my county, and then get to decide to brag on it."

Young Thug was initially charged with one count each of conspiring to violate the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and participating in criminal street gang activity, and was later charged with an additional count of participating in street gang activity, three counts of violating the Georgia controlled substances act, possession of a firearm while committing a felony and possession of a machine gun.

He has pleaded not guilty to all eight counts.

"Mr. Williams has committed no violation of law, whatsoever," Steel told ABC News on May 10, 2022, after the charges were announced by the Fulton County District Attorney's office.

Over the past year, several co-defendants have taken plea deals in this case and the judge ruled that several others would be tried separately.

According to ABC affiliate in Atlanta, WSB-TV, Young Thug is set to stand trial alongside seven co-defendants.

After 10 months of jury selection, Glanville seated a jury last week and Steel told ABC News that the trial, which is expected to last for a year, is set to begin with opening arguments on Nov. 27.

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