Young Thug Lawyer Clashes With Judge in Chaotic Gang Case

A star witness jailed for refusing to testify. A change of heart after a weekend spent behind bars. And then, a lead defense lawyer taken into custody for implying that an improper secret meeting led to the witness’s about-face.

Welcome to another week in the gang and racketeering trial of the chart-topping rapper Young Thug, a courtroom epic in Atlanta that continues to surprise as it approaches 18 months since jury selection began.

On Monday, Judge Ural Glanville took the extraordinary step of holding Brian Steel, the rapper’s primary lawyer, in contempt for refusing to disclose who told him about a closed-door meeting between the judge, prosecutors, the uncooperative witness and his lawyer.

Mr. Steel had argued in court that the conversation was unconstitutional and that the defense should have been present, or at least notified. But in a heated exchange, Judge Glanville took issue instead with how Mr. Steel had learned of the meeting, and later sentenced the lawyer to a maximum of 20 days in jail for failing to reveal his source.

“Listen, if you don’t tell me how you got this information then you and I are going to have some problems,” the judge said in court, to which Mr. Steel responded, “I have problems right now.”

Judge Glanville, who has overseen the case since Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was indicted alongside 27 others in May 2022, appeared increasingly frustrated when he continued: “How did you get that information supposedly from my chambers? Did somebody tell you?”

Mr. Steel snapped back, “You should’ve told me!”

The in-court fireworks threatened to derail the lengthy and complex case, which has already been plagued by delays, disruptions (including the stabbing of one defendant in jail), uncooperative witnesses, extralegal distractions and fits of tension from all sides.

“It’s a complete circus — straight out of ‘Law & Order,’” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional and civil rights law professor at Georgia State University who has observed the trial. “So often I have to disabuse people of the notion that court is like those shows, but yesterday the dramatics just overshadowed everything and that’s really not helpful to the process.”

In addition to an appeal of the contempt order, which could take months to be resolved, Judge Glanville may also have opened himself up to motions to recuse himself from both the contempt issue and the broader case, experts said. The meeting between the judge, prosecutors and the witness could also be grounds for an appeal by Mr. Williams or his co-defendants, should they be convicted.

In emergency situations, a judge may meet with one side or the other — known as “ex parte” — although a judge is typically required to tell the other side that the meeting took place as soon as possible, which Mr. Steel maintained Judge Glanville did not do.

“That’s the kind of thing a defendant can argue deprived them of a fair trial,” said Lester Tate, a trial lawyer and the former president of the State Bar of Georgia.

Prosecutors from the office of Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, say that Mr. Williams led YSL, or Young Slime Life, as a subset of the national Bloods gang, and that he oversaw a criminal conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, witness intimidation and drug dealing.

The indictment relies on the same Georgia criminal racketeering law, or RICO, that Ms. Willis used to indict former President Donald J. Trump and others in what prosecutors call a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.

The latest round of issues in Mr. Williams’s trial began on Friday when a key prosecution witness, Kenneth Copeland, refused to testify after being sworn in, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to protect against self-incrimination despite having already been granted immunity for his testimony. (Asked how old he was before ending his testimony, Mr. Copeland replied, “I’m grown.”)

Mr. Copeland, known as Lil Woody, was named in the indictment as a YSL associate but was not charged in the case. An interrogation video that shows Mr. Copeland discussing the activities of YSL was previously leaked online, leading to scrutiny regarding his so-called snitching and raising concerns about witness intimidation against him.

After Mr. Copeland was held in contempt and spent the weekend in jail, he returned to court on Monday and agreed to testify, although he once again proved uncooperative. When prompted by a prosecutor to identify a defendant, Mr. Copeland stalled and said he had a vision problem. He responded to other basic questions with similar stonewalling.

Following a lunch break, Mr. Steel raised his concerns about how Mr. Copeland had been compelled to testify, calling it potential coercion and witness intimidation by the judge and prosecutors.

In Judge Glanville’s order of contempt and incarceration, he wrote, “In addition to the court’s serious concern with how this information was improperly disclosed to defense counsel, Mr. Steel made several claims regarding the sum and substance of the communication that the court found troubling.”

On Tuesday, Judge Glanville scheduled a hearing for June 25 in which he said those who were present for the private conversation — including Mr. Copeland and his lawyer, Kayla Bumpus — will be made to explain why they, too, “should not be held in contempt for disclosing information” to Mr. Steel and the defense.

After the contempt order, Colette Resnik Steel, a lawyer for Mr. Steel who is also his wife and legal partner, immediately filed a notice of appeal, as well as a motion to purge the ruling.

“It certainly cannot be the law that every time a judge asks a question, the failure to answer lands you in jail,” Ms. Steel wrote in her filing.

Representatives for Mr. Steel declined to comment further.

“This could be a huge turning point in the trial,” Mr. Kreis said. “It’s been a complete zoo sometimes and you could say, ‘Well, that’s not great,’ but the case moves along. I’m less confident about that now.”

After Mr. Steel’s motion for a mistrial was denied on Monday, he was ordered to remove his tie and taken immediately into custody, although he was later allowed to return to the courtroom and observe as the trial continued with Mr. Copeland’s testimony. (On Tuesday, Mr. Copeland continued to testify with Mr. Steel present.)

Mr. Steel later requested that he be allowed to serve his jail time — which the judge ordered to be every weekend for the next 10 weekends — alongside Mr. Williams so they could continue to work on the case. “Sir, if that comes to pass, you have my support,” Judge Glanville said.

As a show of support for Mr. Steel on Monday, some two dozen other defense lawyers turned up at the courthouse, led by Ashleigh Merchant, the lawyer in the Trump election case who filed court documents accusing Ms. Willis of engaging in a “clandestine” relationship with Nathan J. Wade, the special prosecutor she hired in 2021 to help with the case against Mr. Trump and his allies.

Mr. Tate, the former president of the Georgia bar association, said it was “incredibly extraordinary” for Mr. Steel to have been held in criminal contempt.

“It’s just not OK for a judge to jail a lawyer for doing his job,” Mr. Tate said. “It’s particularly not OK when the legal rationale behind that appears to be a pretty tangled web.”

Already the longest criminal trial in state history — jury selection began on Jan. 4, 2023, with opening arguments starting more than 10 months later — the case was on pace to continue into 2027 without adjustments, a defense lawyer argued in a motion in April. Judge Glanville pushed prosecutors to narrow their list of 400 potential witnesses to more than 200, although less than half of those remaining have been called to testify.

“I understand the frustrations of this case for Judge Glanville,” Mr. Tate said. “No judge and no lawyer tries a case for over a year and doesn’t make errors. You’re not entitled to a perfect trial. But this one has a certain circuslike atmosphere and a string of bizarre happenings. This might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

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