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Young Thug: Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

Young Thug Trial: Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

Young Thug, a prominent rapper, is currently on trial in Atlanta, two years after being arrested for racketeering and gang-related charges. His high-profile trial—which began in November and is expected to last several more months—is already the longest in Georgia history.

The trial has been marred with lengthy delays and complications, partly because prosecutors want to use Young Thug’s rap lyrics as evidence that he led a criminal street gang responsible for murders, shootings, and carjackings dating back to 2012. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, argue that his lyrics are artistic expression protected by the First Amendment and should not be used as evidence.

So far, prosecutors have had some success in getting Young Thug’s lyrics in front of the jury, but only time will tell how much weight this evidence will carry in the final verdict.

The case has sparked a broader debate about the intersection of art and law, with many in the music industry and civil rights groups watching closely. They argue that using rap lyrics in criminal trials as evidence sets a dangerous precedent that could stifle creative expression and disproportionately impact artists from marginalized communities. As the trial progresses, it remains a pivotal moment not only for Young Thug but also for the wider conversation about free speech and the criminal justice system.

In this article, the attorneys at Varghese Summersett discuss the case and the controversy and arguments surrounding the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials and prosecutions in the United States.

Background on Young Thug

Background On Young Thug’s Criminal Charges

On May 9, 2022, Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Lamar Williams, and 27 alleged members of the street criminal gang, Young Slime Life (YSL), were arrested for conspiring to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and participating in criminal street gang activity.

The 88-page indictment accused Young Thug of co-founding and leading YSL, which prosecutors allege is a gang affiliated with the Bloods. Prosecutors also allege that YSL – the acronym for the rapper’s label, Young Stoner Life Records – also stands for “Young Slime Life” gang.

Specific charges against Young Thug include renting a car used in a 2015 murder, possession of illegal drugs and firearms, and additional charges stemming from a raid on his Buckhead home.

A total of 28 people, including Young Thug, were charged in a 56-count indictment related to YSL’s alleged criminal activities. Other co-defendants include:

  • Gunna, whose real name is Sergio Kitchens, and Slimelife Shawty, whose name is Wunnie Lee, were both charged with one count of racketeering conspiracy and negotiated plea deals in the case.
  • Walter Murphy and Trontavious Stephens – two other people charged with co-founding YSL with Young Thug – have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.
  • Marquavius Huey, Deamonte “Yak Gotti” Kendrick, Quamavrious Nichols, Roalius Ryan and Shannon Stillwill are also defendants.

Young Thug Trial: Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

What Is The RICO Act?

The RICO Act, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a federally mandated law that aims to combat the presence of organized crime in the United States. Georgia has its own state RICO law modeled after federal RICO but is much broader. Some notable differences include:

  • Georgia’s RICO Act (O.C.G.A. § 16-14-4) makes it a crime to participate in, acquire or maintain control of an “enterprise” through a “pattern of racketeering activity” or to conspire to do so.
  • An “enterprise” can be a legal entity like a business or an informal association with a common purpose. Unlike federal RICO, proof of an actual enterprise is not required.
  • “Racketeering activity” means committing at least two of over 40 predicate state crimes listed in the law within four years to establish a “pattern.”
  • Unlike federal RICO, Georgia’s law does not require proving continuity over an extended period – even a short pattern of related crimes can qualify.
  • Penalties include 5-20 years in prison, a $25,000 fine or triple the illicit proceeds, whichever is greater.
  • As a state charge, it cannot be pardoned by the President.

Georgia’s RICO law is broader than the federal version, making it easier to prosecute. It requires fewer elements of proof for a racketeering charge.

And WhileOthe  Act is being used to prosecute a ganggang-affiliatedense in the Young Thug case, the RICO act Act be used to prosecute a multitude of crimes, including public corruption and white-collar crimes.

Noteably, former President Trump and more than a dozen others are facing RICO charges in Georgia, stemming from accusations they tried to overturn the state’s 2020 election returns.

Why Prosecutors Want to Rap Lyrics in Court

State’s Case: Why Prosecutors Want to Use Rap Lyrics As Evidence

An interesting aspect of the Young Thug trial is that prosecutors have been attempting to use Young Thug’s own rap lyrics as evidence against him in his trial.  The prosecution maintains that the lyrics demonstrate his intent, motive and involvement in crimes like:

  • Murder: “I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body.”
  • Shootings: “a hundred rounds in a Tahoe”
  • Robbery: “She gettin robbed by Tick”

By drawing connections between the lyrics and specific alleged crimes, prosecutors aim to show Young Thug wasn’t just portraying a fictional persona but had actual knowledge and participation in the gang’s racketeering activities.

Proving the Existence of a Criminal Enterprise

The racketeering charges hinge on proving YSL was an illegitimate criminal street gang, not just a record label. Prosecutors claim Young Thug’s lyrics referring to being the “general” of the “pack” that acquired “things of value” through illegal means helps establish YSL operated as a criminal enterprise under his leadership.

In the indictment, prosecutors specifically cited Thug’s song “Slime Shit.”  The song depicts Thug’s connection to the YSL gang and some of the criminal activity the gang engages in. Specifically, they highlighted the lines:

“I’m in the VIP and I got that pistol on my hip, you prayin’ that you live, I’m prayin’ that I hit, hey, this that slime shit.”

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Thug and an alleged fellow YSL member threw up gang signs to the song on social media in 2017. 

As the trial moves forward, the outcome could have significant implications not just for Young Thug but for the broader legal landscape regarding the admissibility of rap lyrics in criminal cases – or creative expression in general. The stakes are high, and the verdict will be closely watched as a defining moment in the intersection of art, free speech, and the criminal justice system.

Defense Arguments against Rap Lyrics in Court

Defense Argument Against Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

As the trial of Young Thug unfolds, his defense team is staunchly opposing the prosecution’s attempt to introduce his rap lyrics as evidence. They argue that this move not only violates his constitutional rights but also perpetuates harmful racial biases and misunderstands the nature of artistic expression.

The main defense arguments against allowing  rap lyrics in criminal trials as evidence are:

  • First Amendment Violation: Young Thug’s lawyers argue that using his lyrics as evidence violates his First Amendment right to free speech and artistic expression. They contend rap lyrics are often exaggerated, fictional narratives and should not be treated as literal confessions or evidence of criminal intent. Admitting lyrics could set a precedent that unfairly criminalizes a particular art form and has a “chilling effect” on rappers’ freedom of expression.
  • Racial Bias Concerns: Critics claim the practice of using rap lyrics disproportionately targets and prejudices Black artists and perpetuates racial stereotypes. The defense argues the lyrics would improperly influence the jury’s perception and tap into racial biases against Young Thug. His lawyer stated: “To call the use of these lyrics anything other than racist would be to sugar coat it.”
  • Lack of Direct Relevance: Young Thug’s lawyer argued individual lyrics should only be admitted when clearly tied to specific alleged criminal actions, which prosecutors allegedly failed to establish. The defense contends many other artists use similar lyrical phrases, so admitting them shows improper “character evidence” rather than direct relevance to crimes charged.
  • Improper Character Evidence Lawyers: Prosecutors are using Thug’s “words” to convince jurors he is “a bad man” – the kind of improper character evidence that is typically inadmissible.
  • Distinguishing Rap Persona from Reality: The defense asserted that Thug’s rap persona and lyrics represent an exaggerated character, not reality, arguing “Rap is the only fictional art form treated this way.”

In essence, the defense challenged the lyrics’ First Amendment protections, potential for racial bias, lack of direct relevance to alleged crimes, and blurring of Thug’s artistic persona with prosecutorial implications of his actual character and intent.

Prosecution Success So Far

While controversial, prosecutors cite precedent where lyrics have been admitted as evidence in other cases, including those involving racist hate groups. They argue the rules of evidence do not exempt rap lyrics if they are relevant to alleged crimes. To date, prosecutors have had some success so far in being allowed to use Young Thugs lyrics at trial:

  • In a November 2022 ruling, Judge Glanville determined that prosecutors can conditionally use up to 17 sets of lyrics if they properly lay the foundation connecting them to the alleged racketeering crimes.
  • However, the judge stated he would consider objections to specific lyrics during the trial if their relevance is questionable.

Allowing Rap Lyrics as Evidence

Precedents Allowing Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials as Evidence

As the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials gains attention, it’s essential to examine the legal precedents that have shaped this controversial practice.

  • Courts have often permitted the introduction of defendants’ rap lyrics to
    demonstrate motive, intent, identity, or knowledge related to the alleged crimes they are charged with.
  • In cases like United States v. Foster (2006) and Holmes v. Nevada (2013), courts ruled that specific details in the lyrics mirroring the crimes made them highly probative as quasi-confessions or admissions of guilt by the defendants.
  • The precedent set is that if lyrics sufficiently resemble evidence of the crime, they can be viewed as autobiographical statements rather than fictional artistic expressions.
  • Prosecutors have circumvented rules against using lyrics as improper character evidence by arguing they demonstrate knowledge (e.g. of drug codes) or specific criminal intent rather than just a general propensity for violence.

Young Thug Trial: Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials: Legal Considerations and Pushback 

Defense attorneys argue admitting rap lyrics violates First Amendment rights to free artistic expression, is racially biased against Black artists, and taps into prejudicial stereotypes before juries.

  • Some courts have excluded vague, general lyrics as improper character evidence that is more prejudicial than probative (New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Skinner 2014).
  • Lawmakers in states like California, New York, and at the federal level have proposed legislation to limit the admissibility of lyrics as evidence of crimes unless directly tied to the case facts.
  • In California, the Decriminalizing Artistic Freedom Act requires prosecutors to hold a separate hearing from the jury to admit song lyrics as evidence. This act was put into place in an effort to maintain the freedom of expression and to ensure that the defendant is getting his or her right to a fair trial. Acts such as these aim to decrease the use of rap lyrics without substantial support or justification to back their claims. 
  • Critics argue the precedents give prosecutors too much leeway to take lyrics out of context and present them as confessions, when rappers commonly use hyperbolic fiction and metaphor as an art form.

So, while there are numerous precedents allowing prosecutors to use a defendant’s rap lyrics against them at trial by arguing they demonstrate criminal knowledge or intent, there is also significant pushback over First Amendment, racial bias, and improper prejudice concerns with this practice.

Other Examples Of Rap Lyrics Young Thug Trial: Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials In Court 

Young Thug’s case, although unique, is not the only instance of rap lyrics being used in court. Here are some other notable examples of rap lyrics being used as evidence in criminal trials. 

  • Taymor “Tay-K” McIntyre (2019) – He released the viral hit “The Race” while on the run from authorities, and was ultimately sentenced to 55 years in prison for his role in a 2016 home invasion robbery in Texas that left a 21-year-old man dead. Prosecutors used his lyrics and music video as key evidence against him at trial.
  • Tekashi 6ix9ine’s (2019) – His rap lyrics were used against him in trial in an attempt to substantiate their claims that he was an active member and participant in the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods gang.
  • Jamal Knox (2015) – Prosecutors in Massachusetts used his rap lyrics glorifying violence against transit police to argue he had a motive for shooting one.
  • Vonte Skinner (2014) – The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned part of his attempted murder conviction, ruling that the admission of his violent rap lyrics as evidence violated his free speech rights and was more prejudicial than probative.
  • Brandon Duncan (2014) – His rap lyrics about body dismemberment were allowed as evidence in his trial for shooting and killing a man in Nevada, though the state Supreme Court expressed some concerns over their use.
  • Lil Boosie (2012) – In his first degree murder trial, the judge ruled that specific lyrics from his song “187” containing slang terms like “murder” (murder) and “cake” (money) could be admitted as evidence by prosecutors trying to establish Boosie’s alleged involvement in hiring a hitman to kill Terry Boyd, despite defense objections against using artistic lyrics against him in court. 
  • Olutosin Oduwole (2011) – An aspiring rapper, his writings about a shooting were deemed admissible as evidence of his intent in an attempted murder case in Illinois.
  • Rashee Beasley (2008) – Convicted of murder in part based on prosecutors arguing his rap recordings were admissions of guilt, not artistic expression, in New Jersey.
  • Lorne Benton (2007) – His rap lyrics describing a shooting were allowed as evidence of identity and motive in his New York trial for a fatal shooting outside a nightclub.
  • Antra’mail Hunter (2005) – Prosecutors used his rap lyrics describing a shooting to help convict him of attempted murder in California.

While not an exhaustive list, these examples from various states illustrate how prosecutors have frequently introduced defendants’ rap lyrics as purported confessions, evidence of motive, identity, or intent related to the alleged criminal acts they were charged with, despite defense objections over First Amendment rights.

Young Thug Trial: Admissibility of Rap Lyrics in Criminal Trials

Why Is This Case Important? 

The Young Thug trial is important for several key reasons:

  1. High-Profile Test of Georgia’s RICO Law
    This is one of the highest-profile cases testing the boundaries of Georgia’s racketeering (RICO) law. Prosecutors are using this statute, typically reserved for organized crime, to argue that Young Thug’s record label YSL is actually a criminal street gang. The trial’s outcome could set important precedents for how this law is applied going forward, including against President Trump who was also indicted under Georgia’s RICO act.
  2. First Amendment Implications
    A major controversy surrounds prosecutors’ use of Young Thug’s rap lyrics as evidence of alleged criminal activity. Defense attorneys argue this violates First Amendment rights and unfairly criminalizes artistic expression, especially for black artist. How the court rules on admitting lyrics could have significant free speech implications.
  3. Racial Bias Concerns
    Critics claim prosecuting rappers based on their lyrics perpetuates racial stereotypes and bias against Black artists before juries. The trial will scrutinize whether using lyrics as evidence is a discriminatory practice.
  4. Spotlight on Atlanta Hip-Hop Scene
    As one of Atlanta’s biggest rap stars, Young Thug’s alleged gang ties have put a spotlight on the city’s influential hip-hop culture and industry. The trial’s outcome could impact rappers’ creative freedom and the local music scene.
  5. Lengthy, High-Stakes Case
    After over a year of delays and nearly 10 months of jury selection alone, the complex, wide-ranging trial involving numerous defendants is expected to be lengthy and feature high-profile witnesses like Killer Mike. With Young Thug facing serious charges like racketeering conspiracy, the stakes are extremely high.

In essence, the Young Thug trial represents a critical legal test case straddling issues of prosecutorial overreach, First Amendment rights, racial bias in the justice system, and the intersection of hip-hop culture with the law – making it one of the most consequential celebrity trials in recent memory

Rapper with a Criminal Charge in North Texas?

If you are a rapper or artist in North Texas accused of a crime in Dallas, Fort Worth or the surrounding areas, we urge you to contact Varghese Summersett as soon as possible. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys have successfully represented a number of rappers and artists and will fight for your future. Call 817-203-2220 for a consultation today.

Tough cases call for the toughest lawyers.

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