ATLANTA — Two popular Atlanta rappers named in a sweeping gang indictment will remain behind bars for now.
Young Thug and Gunna were arrested earlier this month after a Fulton County grand jury handed up a sprawling indictment accusing the award-winning musicians of leading a criminal street gang responsible for much of the city’s violence.
Gunna, whose real name is Sergio Kitchens, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment hearing Monday morning but was denied bond after a Fulton County prosecutor told the judge several of the state’s witnesses are being intimidated.
Kitchens, who performs as hip-hop artist Gunna, was booked into the Fulton County Jail on Wednesday and is being held on a single count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
“We have more than a few witnesses in this case who have already been threatened,” Don Geary told Judge Ural Glanville. “I’ve already got some witnesses who once cooperated but now refuse to.”
Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffrey Williams, did not enter a formal plea Monday. His attorneys’ request for bond was postponed until early next month pending a motion by the state to have attorney Brian Steel disqualified as Williams’ counsel because he represents others named in the 56-count indictment.
A hearing to discuss the potential conflict and Williams’ bond request has been scheduled for June 2.
The musicians are accused of conspiring to violate Georgia’s criminal racketeering law, but the indictment outlines more serious crimes allegedly carried out by their associates ranging from drug possession to murder. Attorneys for both rappers strongly deny the allegations.
In asking to have Kitchens released from jail, defense attorney Steve Sadow said his client was willing to put up $750,000 bond and five houses as collateral, including his mother’s Fulton County home and his father’s house in Muscogee County.
He said Kitchens offered to await trial on house arrest and gave the state permission to monitor the rapper’s cellphone and computer activity in the meantime. The judge denied bond, siding with prosecutors who said those named in the indictment pose a “significant threat” to the community.
“He’s not charged with any act of violence, selling any drugs or obstructing the administration of justice,” Sadow said. “He is charged with just one count.”
Geary said Kitchens, along with Williams, was a founding member of “Young Slime Life,” which prosecutors say is a criminal street gang started more than a decade ago in southwest Atlanta.
“They’ve got their troops,” Geary said in court. “They direct their troops into combat. They are not the ones that fire the bullets.”
Sadow, who said his goal is to get Kitchens exonerated, argued it would be tough to cross-examine state’s witnesses if they couldn’t make it to trial.
Nearly a dozen people charged in the indictment were denied bond Monday morning over their attorneys’ objections.
Lawyers for the rappers contend YSL, or Young Stoner Life, is simply a record label, not a street gang as prosecutors allege. In trying to convince the judge to deny bond, Geary found himself repeating the sometimes violent rap lyrics prosecutors are using to help charge the men.
Attorney Marc Mallon, who represents Martinez Arnold, said musical expression doesn’t necessarily amount to criminal activity.
“It’s up to a jury to decide whether this is evidence or this is braggadocio,” he told the judge.
Glanville has scheduled the trial for Jan. 9, 2023.
Former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said if prosecutors intend to use lyrics, they need to make sure there is an actual link between the lyrics and the crime.
“Lyrics themselves are not criminal so it’s not a crime to say violent things on a record or to talk about violence on a record or even talk about it in public,” James said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “(Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis’) staff is going to try to link some of the things said on the records to something that happened in some of the acts or some of the cases they are using to make the RICO case. Otherwise, it doesn’t have a whole lot of relevance.”
James said the more similar the lyrics are to the actual crime, the more likely a judge will allow it to be admissible and the more likely a jury will consider it. If they can’t find the connection, the defense can argue he is just an entertainer.
“The only way you get around that, as a district attorney, is to be able to link these things up specifically with specific details,” he said. “If you can’t, you got a problem.”
James, who was DeKalb County District Attorney from November 2010 to December 2016, said it’s common for social media posts to be used in gang cases. While DA, James said the gang unit would spend a lot of times going through alleged gang members social media to find anything that could help a case. Similar to lyrics, James said social media posts need to have a connection as well.