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Legal expert on rap lyrics as evidence in Young Thug RICO trial

Breaking down Young Thug’s Rico trial
Legal expert on rap lyrics as evidence in Young Thug RICO trial 07:13

He is considered one of the most influential names in modern rap. But the Grammy-winning Atlanta-based artist is at the center of a racketeering or "RICO" trial. Jeffrey Lamar Williams, known professionally as Young Thug, was accused of simultaneously running a violent street gang through his record label, YSL Records. 

The 88-page, 56-count indictment includes other artists associated with the label, who faced additional charges such as murder and armed robbery. Many have since settled plea deals.

"I think this is an unprecedented prosecution for Fulton County. I've never experienced a RICO prosecution in State Court," court and legal affairs reporter Meghann Cuniff told CBS 2.

Cuniff has covered several high-profile cases out of Los Angeles and Orange County. She went viral most recently for her meticulous reporting over the Tory Lanez trial, a case that gained worldwide attention, but with that, misinformation also circulated. Many relied on her steadfast tweets and writing for the truth.

"It's also an unprecedented prosecution for the hip hop world to have a rap star and a record label, basically on trial like this," Cuniff said. "I think it just says something about the aggressiveness of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office that they're willing to take on complex cases."

Prosecutors are using Young Thug's lyrics against him, citing them as evidence of the alleged violent crimes and gang. This is considered a controversial tactic that some experts and musicians believe to be racist. 

CEO of 300 Entertainment, Kevin Liles, created the petition, "Art on Trial: Protect Black Art '' shortly after Young Thug was arrested. In the petition, Liles says this practice isn't just a violation of the First Amendment's "protections for speech and creative expression"  and urges a "limit how prosecutors can use creative and artistic expression as evidence against defendants in criminal trials." 

California is the only state to have a law that limits the use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal proceedings

"Prosecutors are attempting to use rap lyrics as confessions. This practice isn't just a violation of First Amendment protections for speech and creative expression. It punishes already marginalized communities," Liles wrote in the petition that has over 93,000 signatures. "As with all entertainment, hip-hop artists create entire worlds populated with complex characters who often play both hero and villain."

An open letter was also published in the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was signed by more than 100 artists, industry leaders, and legal experts.

"I always use my music as a form of artistic expression, and I see now that Black artists and rappers don't have that freedom," Young Thug said in a prerecorded address from jail that aired at Hot 97's Summer Jam. 

Research done in a partnership between the University of Georgia and Type Investigations found that since 1950, there have been only a handful of cases in which defendants' writing or non-rap lyrics were used as evidence for violent crime. Meanwhile, rap music has been used in hundreds of cases as evidence by prosecutors. Certain subgenres of rap and hip hop, including Chicago's drill music, are known to depict violent stories. It's the question of whether the stories and characters are real and if lyrics alone are the burden of proof.

In Chicago, drill rap is at the center of the rapper FBG Duck's murder trial. Born Carlton Weekly, FBG Duck was shot and killed in broad daylight in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Six people, who police say are part of the "O-Block'' street gang, are on trial for his murder.

"It does seem like a slippery slope, while others say, 'Hey, you do a diss track, someone ends up dead.' I mean, it's a gold mine of circumstantial evidence. Thoughts on this?" our Brad Edwards asked Cuniff. 

"It's a really controversial use, but it also has a lot of precedent to it," Cuniff said. "I saw it in the case of a rapper Tory Lanez when he was convicted of shooting the other rapper Megan The Stallion in Los Angeles. The jury never actually heard his rap lyrics, but the judge made it clear and told his lawyer that if Tori were to testify, any songs he's written about Megan or about the shooting would be fair game," she said.

"So there is actually a lot of precedent for lyrics coming in that are connected to the crimes. It's just in this RICO case with Young Thug, there are so many lyrics coming in. I think the defense is arguing that there are real tenuous connections between the alleged crimes and these lyrics."

Mark Belknap, a detective in the Atlanta police department's gang unit was the first witness to take the stand in the Young Thug RICO trial. 

The trial is expected to go well into 2024. Cunniff said that a lot of people are looking at Young Thug's RICO production as a "kind of window" into how prosecution could proceed against former President Donald Trump, who is facing the same charge in the same county.

"It's really brought another layer of interest to an already pretty interesting case," she said.

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