Clash between Young Thug’s attorney and the judge could upend Atlanta trial

The dispute came after the lunch break, when Steel, who represents Young Thug, said he learned of a meeting earlier in the day between the judge, prosecutors and a reluctant state witness.

Glanville demanded to know how Steel learned of the meeting, but Steel refused to divulge his source. By day’s end, Glanville had sentenced Steel to 20 days behind bars — the maximum punishment in Georgia for a criminal contempt charge.

Legal experts closely following the case say Steel, who is widely respected for his professionalism, was simply doing his job and shouldn’t have been held in contempt, much less given the harshest sentence possible. They expect Steel’s sentence to be put on hold pending an appeal, and for Glanville’s contempt ruling to be reversed. Some said they expect defense attorneys will ask Glanville to recuse himself from the case.

Young Thug, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, and his lawyer, Brian Steel, look on during the rapper's trial on Monday, June 10, 2024.
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

“If one of the goals of the justice system is to project a sense of fairness, then Judge Glanville has completely failed and is just not fit for the bench,” said Scott Grubman, a criminal defense attorney who is not involved in the case.

Legal experts said the meeting should never have happened, as Georgia’s court rules clearly prohibit such “ex parte” communications on substantive matters in which a party to the case is left out.

Steel suggested in court that the meeting was about encouraging the witness, Kenneth Copeland, to testify after he refused to do so and spent the weekend in jail as a result. Steel said he heard that Copeland was told he could be held in custody until the trial was over, or until all the defendants have their cases adjudicated.

“If that’s true what this is is coercion, witness intimidation, ex parte communications that we have a constitutional right to be present for,” Steel told Glanville.

Steel was ordered to report to the Fulton County jail by 7 p.m. Friday and was told he would spend the next 10 weekends in custody. He asked to serve his sentence with his client. His punishment stunned and angered Atlanta’s legal community.

A contingent of about two dozen attorneys showed up at the courthouse Monday afternoon to support Steel, and many others were glued to the trial’s livestream.

“It’s wild. You just can’t make this stuff up,” said defense attorney Amanda Clark Palmer, who knows many of the attorneys involved in the trial. “You can’t hold a lawyer in contempt if a lawyer is, in good faith, advancing a legal argument, even if they’re wrong.”

Steel returned to the courtroom Tuesday and sat next to his client, but the day wasn’t entirely without incident. Copeland, the reluctant witness, “fired” the lawyer appointed to represent him during his testimony. Glanville ordered the attorney, Kayla Bumpus, and others involved in Monday’s private conversation to appear in court June 25 to explain why they should not be held in contempt for allegedly disclosing information about the meeting to defense counsel.

Georgia State University law professor Anthony Kreis said Glanville’s hostile reaction to Steel’s valid concerns about the meeting was shocking.

“Judges cannot respond by unduly taking their feelings out against an attorney like Judge Glanville did yesterday,” Kreis said. “Frankly, I was surprised that Judge Glanville didn’t take a step back all day to reconsider what he was doing or at least pump the brakes.”

Attorney Chuck Boring, a former prosecutor and director of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, said it’s understandable that everyone involved in the trial, which started in January 2023, is feeling the strain. He said the best way to handle a situation like that presented Monday is to take a step back and figure out the proper way forward.

Defense attorney Brian Steel and his client, rapper Young Thug, react moments before his trial enters the second week at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Appellate attorney Andrew Fleischman said Glanville didn’t address Steel’s concerns in court and failed to include pertinent information in his written contempt order, such as how Steel’s refusal to reveal his source negatively affected the case.

At the very least, Glanville should give defense counsel the meeting transcript, which he has refused to do, Fleischman said. He said judges can sometimes meet ex parte with witnesses in emergencies, but must then disclose the substance of that meeting as soon as possible.

Legal experts couldn’t recall another attorney being punished as harshly as Steel. They expect the Georgia Court of Appeals to stay his sentence while considering whether it was justified. Several attorneys said Steel likely won’t spend a day behind bars.

“Although criminal prosecutors and judges have great power, they are not without limits,” defense attorney Brian McEvoy said.

Attorney Lester Tate, who has represented dozens of judges in misconduct cases, said there’s no indication that Glanville would have revealed that the meeting took place if Steel hadn’t brought it up. He said Glanville’s decision marks a “sad day for the Georgia judicial system.”

Several attorneys criticized Glanville’s overall handling of the trial, saying they expect he will be asked to recuse himself from the case. A Georgia Supreme Court explanation of when a judge should be recused almost exactly describes what Glanville did on Monday, Fleischman said.

Fulton County Chief Judge Ural Glanville spoke to YSL defendants as the trial entered its second week at Fulton County Superior Court on  Monday, Dec 4, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Legal experts said a different judge should decide whether Glanville is taken off the case. Some attorneys said Monday’s secret meeting and Glanville’s subsequent conduct could prompt a mistrial.

Steel is not the first attorney in the case to have been taken into custody. In April 2023, defense attorney Anastasios Manettas was arrested after going through a secondary security checkpoint with some of his prescription medication. Glanville has also found other defense attorneys in contempt for things such as being late to court. Some of them were ordered to buy lunch for their colleagues to get out of trouble.

“He’s not a fair and impartial judge,” Grubman said. “He clearly has a personal animosity towards these defense lawyers. This situation is going to wind up a lot worse for Judge Glanville than it ever will for Brian Steel.”