Thursday, June 13, 2024

High-Profile Witness Arrested for Refusing to Testify

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The interminable trial of Jeffery Williams — Young Thug — in Atlanta has again veered off the highway, after a high-profile witness at the center of the case was arrested on the stand after refusing to testify.

Kenneth “Lil’ Woody” Copeland, a YSL associate whose leaked interrogation tape last year left him labeled as a snitch, has long been anticipated as a witness for the state, but his appearance in court Friday came with only a day’s public notice. Prosecutors previously said he had been threatened as a high-profile witness.

According to Atlanta police testimony and case documentation, a rival gang member from the YFN set of the Atlanta Blood Gang robbed Copeland at a nightclub in south Atlanta in January 2015. That robbery turned a simmering dispute between Williams’ YSL crew and YFN into a shooting war that started with the drive-by murder of Donovan “Nut” Thomas a few days later, witnesses said. 

Prosecutors argue that Williams rented a car at Copeland’s behest, and that this car was used in that drive-by shooting. Proving that Williams knew the car would be used in the crime is central to the state’s racketeering and gang case against the rapper.

“His credibility is the crux of this case. He’s the lynchpin of the case,” said Max Schardt, a defense attorney representing Shannon Stillwell, one of the six remaining defendants in the racketeering and gang case. Stillwell is accused of murdering Thomas, among other crimes. 

Copeland said he was planning to plead the Fifth when first called to the stand, outside of the jury’s presence in the morning. Judge Ural Glanville explained to Copeland that he had been given immunity to prosecution by the district attorney’s office for anything he testified to, which made his testimony mandatory. Copeland seemed to relent but was given time to confer with Jonathan Melnick, his attorney. 

Melnick entered court throwing rhetorical axes at prosecutors. He said that he was unaware that the district attorney’s office had been preparing his client for trial testimony until the day before, and had contact with Copeland without an attorney present. Assistant District Attorney Adriene Love said that Copeland told them he wasn’t represented and had been cooperating freely up until that point.

Notably, the district attorney’s immunity offer does not extend to potential federal charges. Copeland was arrested at a traffic stop in South Fulton in October 2021 and faced state charges of having a handgun as a felon. Those charges were dropped, but Copeland potentially faces federal charges for the same crime.

Copeland returned to the stand after lunch, with the jury seated. Asked a perfunctory question about how old he was after being sworn in, Copeland pleaded the Fifth.

Moments before Copeland reentered the courtroom, two Fulton County sheriff’s deputies pulled reporters aside to tell them not to record if it became necessary for them to arrest Copeland. The instruction was in conflict with the standing order for media in court. Deputies refused to explain the law enforcement rationale for their instruction.

We asked Judge Ural Glanville’s staff attorney Wesley Kearns if Glanville would issue that instruction as an order. Kearns then approached the judge to presumably pass that along. Glanville did not issue that order before ordering Copeland jailed for willful contempt following his refusal to testify.

After the arrest, Williams’ attorney Brian Steel called for a mistrial. 

Glanville acknowledged that if prosecutors knew that Copeland was going to refuse to testify and called them anyway, it would constitute an act of misconduct. “But that didn’t happen in this case,” Glanville said, ignoring the plain expectations of the court’s deputies. “The last thing we heard from Mr. Copeland was that he was going to testify.”

Defense attorneys said word had been circulating in the courthouse that Copeland was going to refuse. 

“If a party knows that a witness is going to invoke the Fifth Amendment in front of a jury, which poisons us, there is no doubt it prejudices Mr. Williams et al,” Steel said. “Because this trial has been going now, I believe eight months in front of a jury, and they’ve heard Mr. Copeland’s name however many times … they opened on him that he’s a killer.”

Copeland told prosecutors that he would testify, and only refrained after being influenced by his attorney, Love replied. “What we are seeing, we believe, is tampering with witnesses,” Love said. “This particular witness with someone who is not the state. … It causes us to call into question whose interest he’s representing.”

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Love described the day as having gone off the rails.

Melnick said he intends to refer the assistant district attorney to the state bar for disciplinary action, both for communicating with his client without notifying him, and for the accusation of witness tampering.



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