The racketeering case against Young Thug has been marked by a plodding pace, an avalanche of pretrial defense motions and pressure on lower-level defendants to plead guilty.
On its face, the criminal case accusing former President Donald J. Trump and 18 of his allies of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia has little in common with the other high-profile racketeering case now underway in the same Atlanta courthouse: that of the superstar rapper Young Thug and his associates.
But the 15-month-old gang case against Young Thug — which, like the Trump case, is being prosecuted by Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney — offers glimpses of how State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump et al. may unfold: with a plodding pace, an avalanche of pretrial defense motions, extraordinary security measures, pressure on lower-level defendants to plead guilty, and a fracturing into separate trials, to name a few.
Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was indicted in May 2022 along with 27 others under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, known as RICO. Like Mr. Trump’s RICO indictment, the charging papers described a corrupt “enterprise” whose members shared common illegal goals.
Prosecutors claim that Mr. Williams is a founder of Young Slime Life, or YSL, a criminal street gang whose members were responsible for murders and other violence, drug dealing and property crimes, with the purpose of illegally obtaining “money and property.” (The defendants say YSL is simply a record label.)
But the case against Mr. Williams has been whittled to eight defendants, from an initial 28. Some defendants have had their cases severed because they struggled to find lawyers or were fugitives from justice, among other reasons. As is common in big racketeering cases, others have accepted plea deals, making admissions along the way that could help prosecutors in their effort to convict the remaining defendants.
After raucous courtroom outbursts from fans and a number of bizarre incidents — including alleged efforts to smuggle drugs into court — security has been ratcheted up, with members of the public and the news media barred from the courtroom.
And remarkably, the case has been stuck in the jury selection phase since January, with many potential jurors claiming they would suffer hardships if forced to participate in a trial that was originally estimated to last six to 12 months. On Thursday morning, a young woman — one of more than 2,000 potential jurors to come through the courthouse doors — was grilled about her life, her future plans to pursue medical training and whether serving would present a hardship.
Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was indicted in May 2022 along with 27 others under the state’s RICO law.Credit…Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via A.P.
She said it would not. When asked if she knew of Young Thug, she said she did, and that she liked his music — which, she added, would make hearing the case “surreal,” although she also said she could be fair-minded.
The YSL indictment is significantly more complex than the Trump case, describing nearly 200 criminal acts as part of a bloody gang war that played out for at least eight years in a city considered to be a hotbed of music industry innovation. The authorities have said that a crosstown rivalry between YSL and a gang called YFN was exacerbated in 2015 with the murder of Donovan Thomas, a behind-the-scenes connector instrumental in several rap careers.
In the aftermath of the killing, the authorities say, many in the city picked sides as retaliatory shootings spilled across Atlanta.
It is a world far removed from White House meetings and voting software. But experts say the Trump case, with its own famous lead defendant and sprawling nature, could encounter some similar complications.
In Mr. Trump’s indictment, prosecutors also outlined a “criminal organization,” made up of power players like Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, and Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, and obscure Trump supporters like Scott Hall, an Atlanta bail bondsman who was charged with helping to carry out a data breach at a rural Georgia elections office.
The Trump team’s shared goal, according to the indictment, was “to unlawfully change the outcome” of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election in Mr. Trump’s favor.
Ms. Willis, a veteran prosecutor, has said she appreciates the way that RICO indictments allow for the telling of big, broad, easily digestible stories. Both the YSL and Trump indictments paint pictures of multifaceted “organizations,” showing how the defendants are connected and what they are accused of, which are described across dozens of pages as “acts in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
These acts include both discernible criminal activity — like murder and aggravated assault in the YSL case and “false statements and writings” and “conspiracy to defraud the state” in the Trump case. But they also include noncriminal “overt acts” meant to further the goal of the conspiracy.
Ms. Willis’s office has proposed that the Trump trial begin in March.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times
In the YSL indictment, the “overt acts” include Mr. Williams’s performing rap songs with violent lyrics — a legal strategy that has set off a heated debate about free speech and whether hip-hop, a quintessentially Black art form, is the target of racist scapegoating. Last year, Mr. Williams’s defense team filed a motion seeking to exclude the lyrics from the case, but the judge has yet to rule on it.
Chris Timmons, a trial lawyer and former Georgia prosecutor, said he expected a similar free speech fight to erupt, at least in court, over Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts. Mentions of tweets he posted in the months after the 2020 election pepper the 98-page indictment as it describes efforts in Washington to set up bogus pro-Trump electors in Georgia and other states, to cajole legislators in those states to accept them, and to pressure Mike Pence, then the vice president, to throw a wrench in the final Electoral College vote.
Some of the tweets in the indictment might seem rather bland in a different context. “Georgia hearings now on @OANN. Amazing!” Mr. Trump tweeted on Dec. 3, 2020 — a month after Election Day — referring to a far-right TV network’s airing of a state legislative hearing in which his supporters made a number of untrue allegations about election fraud.
In other instances, Mr. Trump tweeted outright lies about election fraud. “People in Georgia got caught cold bringing in massive numbers of ballots and putting them in ‘voting’ machines,” he posted in December 2020.
Mr. Timmons said he expected Mr. Trump’s lawyers to try to throw out his Twitter posts, as well as a recording of a call that the former president made to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, on free speech grounds.
“They’re going to try to suppress the recording of the phone call, and probably try to suppress any tweets that were sent, and any text messages, anything along those lines, as violative of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” he said.
In another parallel with the YSL case, the Trump case is almost certain to see multiple pretrial motions from a bumper crop of defense lawyers. One defendant, Mr. Meadows, has already filed a motion to move the case to federal court.
Both Mr. Trump and Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who is among the defendants, may also file for removal, which would broaden the jury pool beyond liberal Fulton County into more Trump-friendly areas.
Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer representing John Eastman, a defendant in the Trump case charged with helping to plan the bogus elector scheme, said this week that he expected a number of defendants to try to sever their cases.
“Bringing in that many defendants and that many counts is an unmanageable criminal case,” he said, referring to the fact that each defendant is charged with racketeering and at least one of 40 other criminal charges.
Mr. Silverglate, who said his client was innocent, added, “This is a case that wouldn’t reach trial in two years.”
Ms. Willis’s office has proposed that the Trump trial begin in March, but the chances of that happening seem vanishingly slim. Mr. Meadows’s removal effort alone is likely to trigger a federal appeal, a process that could take months to resolve.
While dragging out a case can hurt the prosecution, as witnesses forget or even die, the mere prospect of a multiyear legal ordeal can help convince some defendants to take a plea, as probably happened in the YSL case.
Mr. Timmons, who tried numerous RICO cases, said that prosecutors often hoped to secure pleas from the lower-level players and work up toward the defendant at the top of the list, who is often the most prominent or powerful among them.
“Your goal is to roll that up like a carpet, working at the bottom and working your way to the top,” he said.
The Trump case may prove different from the YSL case in that rappers’ careers might survive a guilty plea (unless they are deemed snitches), while lawyers convicted of felonies lose their licenses — and there are numerous lawyers on the Trump indictment. Those lawyers may choose to hang on and fight an epic legal battle with Ms. Willis, a formidable prosecutor who has been trying RICO cases for years.
Mr. Trump is running for re-election while facing indictments in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C., as well as in Georgia. If he is concerned about how his legal troubles could affect his popularity, he might find hope in the fact that Mr. Williams released his latest album while in custody, and saw it debut at the top of a Billboard chart this summer.