ATLANTA - Testimony started Wednesday in the third day of the Young Thug trial. The prosecution brought in Detective Mark Belknap, who works in the Atlanta Police Department’s gang unit, as their first witness.
"The court will designate Detective Belknap as an expert in criminal street gang recognition, investigation, identification and practices," said Chief Judge Ural Glanville of the Fulton County Superior Court.
Belknap talked about his work history and background with gangs. He introduced "states evidence one," a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the gang activities. He also shared what he has learned about the initiation process, how they operate internally, distinguishing characteristics and why people typically join.
"That goal of money, power and respect is to increase their own reputation, increase their own ability to retaliate and do violence to the extent that it keeps someone else from doing violence against them," explained Belknap.
He then testified about the history of street gangs with a large focus on "Raised on Cleveland" or the "ROC Crew." He also discussed some of the biggest challenges investigators face when prosecuting gang crimes.
Young Thug in court on day three of the YSL RICO trial on Nov. 29, 2023.
"Potential witnesses or victims that are cooperating with police can be outed on social media to a large number of people in a short amount of time, thereby making it very difficult to testify," said Belknap.
Belknap says the "ROC Crew" formed sometime around 2006 or 2007 in the Cleveland Avenue area of Atlanta. He testified about the eventual YSL tie-in.
"They were based in the same area as the previous ROC Crew and what we discovered was, that many of the members claiming to be YSL, previously claimed to be members of ROC Crew."
The detective was among the first witnesses, of potentially several hundred, that are expected to take the stand in the trial of rapper Young Thug and five associates. Prosecutors say all are part of the YSL gang, and now face charges for violating Georgia’s anti-racketeering and gang laws.
Young Thug, YSL RICO Trial: Day 2 Recap
Fulton County prosecutor Adriane Love didn't dispute that Young Thug is a talented artist, but she said he exploited his gift for a darker purpose, using his songs, clout and social media posts to promote and establish the dominance of his gang, Young Slime Life, or YSL.
"Through that music, through that blessing, the evidence will show, Jeffery Williams led that group of people who wreaked utter havoc on Fulton County," Love told jurors during her opening statement Monday.
Defense attorney Brian Steel acknowledged that his client's songs mention killing police, people being shot, drugs and drive-by shootings, but he said those are just the words he rhymed and a reflection of his rough upbringing and not a chronicle of his own activities.
"They want you to fear music that talks about killing, drugs," Steel told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday. "It is art. You don't like it; you don't have to listen to it. This is America. It is art."
Steel mentioned Young Thug's collaborations with high-profile artists, appearances on television and numerous awards and riches that came with it. The rapper is so busy and successful that he wouldn't have the time or motivation to lead a gang, Steel said.
"He is not sitting there telling people to kill people," he said. "He doesn't need their money. Jeffrey's worth tens of millions of dollars."
Steel noted that YSL is the name of Young Thug's successful record label, but Love said the actions outlined in the indictment "have nothing to do with a recording label."
The gang began about a decade ago in Atlanta's Cleveland Avenue neighborhood, born of an internal rift in a preceding gang, and Young Thug emerged as its leader, Love argued. The gang's members were "associated in fact" - using common identifiers, language, symbols and colors - and they "knew who their leader was, and they knew the repercussions of not obeying their leader," she said.
The people who have been affected directly and indirectly by the gang's violence represent the lives "swallowed up by that crater created by YSL in the Cleveland Avenue community," Love said.
Young Thug was born into poverty in a crime-ridden housing project where he developed a strong distrust of the criminal justice system, Steel said. His family moved to the Cleveland Avenue area when he was 16, and he got out through hard work and talent, Steel said. But he didn't forget his roots and has been extremely generous with his good fortune, Steel said.
"He's not the crater. He's trying to pull people out of poverty," Steel said.
The indictment charges all the defendants with conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Love acknowledged that may sound complicated but told the jurors it's quite simple.
The members of the gang committed crimes, including murder, armed robbery, aggravated assault and theft to further the gang's mission, she said. Those actions and others that aren't crimes - rap lyrics, social media posts, flashing gang signs - combined to form a pattern of illegal activity, she said.
"They endeavored to do some illegal stuff to get a bunch of stuff that didn't belong to them," Love said.
Prosecutors have made clear that they intend to use rap lyrics from songs by the defendants to help make their case. This is a controversial tactic, but Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville earlier this month said he'd conditionally allow certain lyrics as long as prosecutors can show they're linked to the crimes alleged in the indictment.
Prosecutors have said they're not pursuing Young Thug and others because of violent lyrics.
"We didn't chase the lyrics to solve the murders," Love said. "We chased the murders and, as the evidence will show, in the process, we found the lyrics."
One of those murders that is expected to feature heavily during the trial is the January 2015 killing of Donovan Thomas, who prosecutors say was a major figure in a rival gang and whose death is said to have sparked an escalation in violence. Two of the six people currently on trial are charged with murder in his killing, and Young Thug is accused of renting the car used in the drive-by shooting.
Rapper Young Thug in court on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.
Many of the lyrics, social media posts, text conversations and online messages cited in the indictment have been taken out of context and misrepresented to seem sinister when they are not, Steel said.
He and other defense attorneys tried during opening statements to poke holes in the state's case, saying that police relied on jailhouse informants who had every reason to tell them what they wanted to hear. They also hammered the state's use of song lyrics, saying the art that helped their clients better their circumstances is now being improperly used against them.
Opening statements began Monday and continued Tuesday before a jury that took nearly 10 months to select. The trial is expected to last months. Only six of the original 28 defendants are on trial after others either took plea deals or were separated to be tried later.
Among those who took a plea deal was rapper Gunna, whose given name is Sergio Kitchens. He was charged with a single count of racketeering conspiracy and entered an Alford plea last December, meaning he maintains his innocence but recognizes that it's in his best interest to plead guilty.
Young Thug, YSL RICO Trial: Day 1 Recap
Opening statements proved to be just as tedious as everything that led up to the trial. Fulton County Chief Judge Ural Glanville admonished one juror, who reportedly had car problems, for pushing the start back by nearly an hour and a half.
Fulton County Chief Deputy District Attorney Adriane Love finally began opening statements, telling jurors the evidence would lead them to conclude that the YSL organization is tied to the national Bloods gang and participated in organized violence.
"They committed crimes such as armed robbery, hijacking, motor vehicle theft, theft by receiving, stolen firearms, possession of a machine gun, and narcotic sales and last but certainly not least, murder," said Love.
It was during a slide show presentation by prosecutors that Young Thug's attorney objected and called for a mistrial because of multiple "inaccurate" slides on the prosecutor's PowerPoint. He also says the defense wasn't allowed to review the material before Monday.
The judge paused the trial and broke the jury for lunch. Around 1:30 p.m., the court reconvened with the judge denying the motion for dismissal, but instead instructed the jury to disregard parts of the presentation and warned prosecutors it risked having the whole slideshow thrown out.
Defense attorneys are expected to continue outlining their case on Tuesday before witnesses are called.
The trial is projected to last months and will likely include testimony from several high-profile music industry figures.
Prosecutors are expected to take the controversial step of using Young Thug’s rap lyrics as evidence against him.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.