Prosecutors plan to use rapper Jeffery Lamar “Young Thug” Williams’ own lyrics against him in a criminal conspiracy case, a tactic that has led to the conviction of rappers in the past.

The indictment lists over 180 criminal acts allegedly committed by members of YSL between 2012 and 2020. As a result, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office has issued 56 separate charges against them, including drug possession, aggravated assault and murder.

This isn’t the first time rap lyrics have been produced as evidence in court, and precedent isn’t in the rapper’s favor. Prosecutors have used hip-hop against defendants for decades — because it often works.

“It doesn’t take a lot to pull someone in as a co-conspirator”

The group was arrested on state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges, designed to root out organized crime. As a result, the crimes committed by some members of the gang could lead to a conviction for others, even if they didn’t play an active role.

“It’s an attempt to punish groups of people engaging in criminal activity instead of individuals engaging in criminal activity,” Page Pate, an Atlanta-based trial lawyer and expert on RICO law, told Grid.

RICO has a separate criminal statute where a suspect can be charged not just for the criminal act, but also for participating in a group categorized as a RICO enterprise that engages in a pattern of criminal acts, he explained.

If more than two individuals are found committing more than two crimes, a pattern is established, making them vulnerable to RICO charges. “It can be as simple as a group of people shoplifting to a drug cartel to organized crime,” Pate said.

Lyrics from "Anybody" by Young Thug (as excerpted in the indictment):

I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body...
I told them to shoot a hundred rounds...
ready for war like I'm Russia...
I get all type of cash, I'm a general...

“Given the breadth of RICO, it doesn’t take a lot to pull someone in as a co-conspirator,” Jeffrey Grell, an attorney at the Minneapolis-based law firm Grell Feist who specializes in RICO cases, told Grid. “Anything you do that furthers or facilitates the criminal objective of the enterprise can be grounds for liabilities conspirator.”

For example, having a conversation to plan a drug deal, even if you weren’t the one to carry out the drug deal, could make you vulnerable to getting swept up in a RICO case.

During the news conference, Willis explained that her office counted his lyrics as “overt and predicate acts within the RICO count because we believe that’s exactly what it is.” A “predicate act” in a RICO case is defined as a crime committed at an earlier date that can be used to enhance a sentence on a case later, meaning that Williams’ lyrics are seen by Willis as evidence of engaging in and encouraging criminal gang activity.

“I assume the theory that prosecutors have in this case is that Williams knew that he was promoting these gang activities through his music and was giving them street cred,” Grell said. “Of course, it’ll be up to a jury to decide whether that’s sufficient to convict him on.”

Erik Nielson, a hip-hop scholar at the University of Richmond, has testified in several RICO cases in which rappers were implicated by their lyrics. “[Prosecutors] argue that whether you’ve committed any actual crime, they can pin the whole weight of the charge on you as essentially an accessory,” he said. “And it sounds to me like they’re going to go down that road [in Young Thug’s case].”

“It’s a highly effective tactic”

Jurors requested to listen to his song “I’m Out Here,” which was used as a centerpiece twice during the trial, before finding him guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and armed robbery.

“[Rap lyrics] are used because it’s a highly effective tactic,” Nielson told Grid. “If prosecutors can put these prejudicial inflammatory lyrics and videos in front of a jury, particularly if they have a weak case, they are still able to secure convictions.”

The evidence can be presented through text, audio or video, but the trend remains the same: Jurors tend to view violent rap lyrics as a point against the defendant.

“It was just to create music”

Nielson said that the tactic works because it plays into stereotypes about Black and Hispanic men. “No other fiction genre, musical or otherwise, is used like this in courts,” he said. “[It’s] obvious that race is behind a lot of this.”

“When a violent lyrical passage is represented as a rap song, or associated with a Black singer, subjects find the lyrics objectionable, worry about the consequences of such lyrics, and support some form of government regulation,” she wrote. “If the same lyrical passage is presented as country or folk music, or is associated with a White artist, reactions to the lyrics are significantly less critical on all dimensions.”

“Collectively, these findings highlight the possibility that rap lyrics could inappropriately impact jurors when admitted as evidence to prove guilt,” they wrote.

This doesn’t mean that Williams’ case is open-and-shut. Grell noted that the defense could simply argue that his lyrics are fictional. “That would be one of my defenses in this case, that his creative work doesn’t have any connection to reality,” he said.

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