The bond hearing yesterday for Young Thug and other accused YSL gang members reveals a few details.
Give the chutzpah award to Jay Abt for his argument to free Deamonte Kendrick — the rapper Yak Gotti — at yesterday’s bond hearing. His soliloquy is worth reading because it lays out the theme defense attorneys are likely to take over the coming months and years in the trial of 28 accused Young Slime Life gang members.
“Atlanta has become in the last several decades a hub in the United States for the music industry for the entertainment industry. It’s created a tremendous number of jobs and income and opportunity for young inner-city youth. I would argue to this court that it’s actually has prevented a lot of crime.
“The message that the district attorney’s office is sending to our community and to our country is that you better not come to Atlanta and make rap videos because we’re going to use those against you in court and we’re going to create a chilling effect on the 1st Amendment. We’re going to push out this beneficial economic wave that has blessed our city and blessed our community.
“They’re sending a message to every young kid today in the city who hopes to grow up and become a successful musician that whenever you go on YouTube and the Internet and create as your art form, you’re going to have that used against you later. And that is a shame on them. That is one of the greatest things that has blessed our city and our community and our state in the last two decades. And your honor should consider that in granting a bond.”
Defense attorneys in the YSL case intend to argue that the prosecution of their clients puts rap on trial, and that rap music is an unvarnished blessing requiring an unapologetic defense.
Now, the judge wasn’t buying this lofty rhetoric from Abt, or from Jeffery “Young Thug” Williams’ attorney Brian Steel, or anyone else. No one got a bond yesterday. The court set trial dates for January, though it remains to be seen if arguments push that date back further.
Some of those arguments will inevitably be about how prosecutors intend to use song lyrics as evidence in the case.
Consider this Young Thug line from “Bad Boy,” a 2021 collaboration with the late rapper Juice WRLD. “I shot at his mommy, now he no longer mention me,” Assistant District Attorney Don Geary noted.
Young Thug has had a long standing beef with the rapper Rayshawn “YFN Lucci” Bennett. Bennett’s mother’s house was shot up twice in one week. Bennett’s mother was wounded in the second drive-by attack. Geary offered the lyrics as context to an act of crime, as a way to show that the lyrics aren’t simply an act of artistic imagination but a statement of real world criminal intent.
Prosecutors appear ready to present Williams as the leader of the gang who uses money and fame as a means to manipulate others into engaging in criminal acts, and that he preys on the poverty in his community for new recruits.
“We have a proffer, judge, even from the mother of one of the defendants in this indictment that Mr. Williams does the community events to recruit more people, that her son was recruited by money, shoes, clothes, because they didn’t have anything,” Geary said in court. “And now her son, by her statement, is in jail for the rest of his life.”
Geary didn’t identify which defendant’s mother was offering to testify.
Bond in this case was a long shot. More so, perhaps, while people are being threatened for testifying, and certainly while someone is trying to do gang stuff over the phone from the jail.
Geary initially identified Yak Gotti as the guy using contraband phones, but corrected that about an hour later. Geary said one of the YSL defendants had used a smuggled phone and other inmates’ phone codes to try to get someone on the outside to destroy a cache of burner phones. Police overheard the call and got to those phones first.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the cops are plainly monitoring all the phone calls coming out of the jail, including the ones from illegal cell phones. That contraband phone in the jail? The sheriff knows it’s there. He might have planted it himself. By all means, sign into your Instagram page while you’re at it so they can read your direct messages.
Given that the charges in the indictment describe intercepted calls from the jail, I remain shocked that accused gang members would still be trying to evade surveillance. But there’s a lot to be shocked about.
In another intercepted call, Williams was heard begging for help to manage drug withdrawal. At the time of his arrest, Young Thug was allegedly found in a house with a small arsenal of guns — including a sawed-off shotgun and a very illegal pistol converted into an automatic weapon — and 20 bottles of “lean,” or promethazine syrup.
Williams’ attorney claimed in his lengthy argument for bond that his client was clean. The intercepted call appeared to blindside him.
Steel himself was the subject of a long legal argument. Steel also represents Damone Blalock in Blalock’s appeal of a murder conviction. Prosecutors argued in court yesterday that Steel’s representation of Blalock is a conflict of interest.
“If defendants in this indictment wish to cooperate with the prosecution and provide testimony against other defendants in that indictment, we are willing to offer deals, depending on the information and depending on the defendant,” said Fulton County assistant district attorney Elizabeth Rosenwasser. “We at this point are unable to offer Mr. Blalock a deal because the representation of Mr. Williams would be a conflict.”
Rosenwasser strongly implied that the state was actively pursuing a deal with Blalock. But it’s also worth looking at Blalock’s case more closely and what the prosecution might actually be trying to do here.
Damone Blalock, now 20, was convicted in September of killing Jamari Holmes, a 15-year-old who was with four teenagers in a stolen Dodge Charger. Blalock was 17 years old when arrested in 2019. He and another kid who was 15 years old at the time opened fire on the car with an AK-47 and a handgun while it was parked near a southside apartment complex, according to court transcripts.
Blalock was originally charged with a gang participation crime when first arrested. Prosecutors dropped the gang charge before trial. But the Holmes killing reemerged as a predicate act of the gang case prosecutors are buildings against YSL. Few other defendants in the case have as much to gain from cutting a deal. Blalock is young and facing life in prison. A deal might send him home, if he knows enough.
Prosecutors said that they had already received proffers from members of the gang — some of whom are on the indictment — that describe Jeffery Williams as the leader of the gang and that they face the threat of death for themselves or their families if they testify. People are already getting ready to flip.
Left unspoken yesterday is how Blalock could score an excruciatingly expensive criminal defender like Steel to argue his appeal. Also left unspoken is the risk prosecutors may have exposed Blalock to by featuring their negotiations so prominently in argument.
Prosecutors cited threats made to other potential witnesses in their argument to deny bond to Williams and others. Georgia’s prisons have grown extraordinarily dangerous — the murder rate within prison has increased about seven-fold since the start of the pandemic — and the DA just suggested that they’re trying to flip Blalock.
But … the entire prospect of offering him a deal may simply be a rationale offered by prosecutors to engineer a conflict of interest between Jeffery Williams and Brian Steel, to get Steel knocked off the defense.
Steel is among the most capable private defense attorneys in the state, and is intimately familiar with Williams and his family. Steel argued the appellate case that freed Williams’ brother Quantavius Greer — the rapper Unfoonk — who is also charged in the gang and RICO case here.
“I have been with Mr. Williams countless days, weeks, months and hours,” Steel said yesterday. “I know his entire life. You want to talk about representation of a client? That is the bond of an attorney-client relationship.”
Judge Ural D. Glanville allowed Steel to continue representing Williams, but held out the possibility that later conflicts could change his opinion.
Steel threw the kitchen sink at the judge, bringing in a pastor and a kid to talk about Williams’ charitable work, a label executive from 300 Entertainment ready to bet the company on Young Thug’s supervised release, and more. But Steel’s advocacy wasn’t enough to free Williams, which again would have been a stretch even if other strange and threatening events had not complicated things.
It might have been easier to ignore these threats if a second YSL indictment wasn’t also raising concerns.
Funny thing about that second indictment: a Smith State Prison outfit calls itself the Yves Saint Laurent gang. They might just be trying to be clever about things; Mark Winne suggests they are the same gang as Young Slime Life. No Fulton County prosecutor has yet publicly made that connection, however.
The Tattnall County state RICO indictment alleges that four members of this prison-based YSL gang had deeply corrupted prison guards, allowing them to smuggle in money, drugs, jewelry, weapons and even women. The indictment attributes three murders to the gang. Jessica Gerling, a former prison guard and girlfriend of gang leader Nathan Weekes, was murdered by the gang after being fired for bringing contraband into the prison, according to the indictment.
In another case, an attempted hit on a prison guard who wouldn’t cooperate with the gang instead resulted in the murder of that guard’s next door neighbor, Bobby Kicklighter.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Quartavius Mender — the cousin of Tenquarius Mender, one of the defendants in the YSL case — allegedly began a campaign of threats and intimidation against Fulton County sheriff Pat Labat, his wife Jacki Labat, and Ronald Aplin, the chief of the Atlanta Public Schools police force a couple of weeks ago.
Mender allegedly posted messages on Instagram pages for the police and others. One of the messages targeting Jacki Labat said “Free Thug. Or imma wait for you outside your car and murk your wife.” Mender allegedly trawled through AtlScoop’s Instagram page as well using the now-defunct ysl.fatjay account, saying “Imma assassinate sheriff labat / Imma park my car and wait for him. Then assassinate him.”
Sheriff Pat Labat picked up Mender on Tuesday. He’s going to be in Labat’s jail for a while after being denied bond.