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Gunna's Plea Deal Sparks Complex Conversations About "Snitching" in Hip-Hop
Legal experts break down why the question of "Did Gunna snitch?" is more complicated than rap fans are making it out to be.
In the past month, Atlanta rapper Gunna (Sergio Kitchens) has gained his freedom but acquired a new problem. In a genre that oftentimes hinges on loyalty and association, his recent plea deal has sparked relentless allegations that he is a “snitch.”
Allegations of snitching have long been frustrating for Gunna, even before the trial. Several months after he was indicted as a part of a sweeping Racketeering case that involved 27 other defendants, including fellow rapper and YSL founder Young Thug (Jeffery Williams), I interviewed Gunna for GQ. In a portion of our conversation that did not make the final profile, the rapper talked about being frustrated by the fact that fans and rappers like Freddie Gibbs had labeled him a snitch after a video of him allegedly speaking with Crime Stoppers surfaced. In reality, he was doing a news interview about a close relative.
Recently, the rumors have started again, this time as a result of the YSL racketeering case. In December, Gunna entered a negotiated Alford plea and was released from jail later in the day. Appearing in court, the rapper affirmed a series of statements presented by the prosecution, most notably: “YSL is a music label and a gang, and you have personal knowledge that members or associates of YSL have committed crimes in furtherance of the gang.” Gunna was subsequently sentenced to five years, with one year commuted to time served and four years suspended. He must complete at least 350 hours of community service, including speaking with young people about the dangers of gangs.
Gunna was among eight defendants who took a plea deal in the months leading up to trial, which began with jury selection earlier this month with the remaining 14 defendants, including Young Thug. (Six other defendants are set to stand trial at a later date.) Likely because of his status in the industry as a high-profile rapper with two no. 1 albums (and maybe even because of the past rumors about him), Gunna has trended several times on social media following his release as fans continuously speculate about whether or not he’s betrayed his co-defendants. (Rapper Slimelife Shawty, whose real name is Wunnie Lee, has also had to address rumors of snitching following his plea deal in the case.)
Okayplayer spoke with experts about Gunna’s plea deal and the cultural implications of “snitching” allegations in hip-hop.
What is an Alford Plea?
According to Thea Johsnon, an associate professor of law at Rutgers University whose work often focuses on the plea bargaining process, an Alford plea allows defendants to say, “I am innocent of these charges but I understand the state has evidence or intends to continue to pursue this case against me. Because I want to end the case, I am going to accept the conviction.”
More than 90 percent of cases are resolved through plea bargaining, which is why Johnson said the “criminal justice system is a system of pleas.”
“It’s not a system of trials,” she added, before noting that the process is “inherently coercive.” “The state has this tremendous power to punish you. And, generally, the potential power becomes much, much worse after you go to trial. So, the ability to leverage some negotiated bargain that is better for you, even if you're innocent, is much easier before you've gone to trial.”
It’s also important to note that an Alford plea is still considered a guilty plea.
Why are people discussing “snitching” as it pertains to Gunna taking a plea deal?
There are a lot of reasons people might be speculating about snitching when it comes to Gunna accepting a plea deal. In addition to the inaccurate belief some people have that taking a plea deal always requires the sharing of information with prosecutors, many people on social media have pointed to the courtroom video of Gunna admitting that YSL is both a music label and a gang as proof that he’s providing helpful information to officials.
Professor Elaine Richardson, who studies community literacy at The Ohio State University, said a lot of the speculation is tied to the complex relationship that Black people have with law enforcement. This, of course, extends to Black rappers, too.
“Even when someone gets murdered, a lot of times if you’re in the streets – and hip-hop is of the streets – you don’t want to tell who did it,” she said. “And, when you do testify or take a deal, it’s seen as you selling out.”
But, while the definition of snitching and what it entails can vary depending on the person using the term, law experts say the existence of a plea deal itself does not inherently mean Gunna has told prosecutors any pertinent information beyond what they likely already knew.
“It’s a complicated answer but he’s admitting the things they already know,” Devin Franklin, policy counsel for Southern Center for Human Rights said, referring to the courtroom video. “The police have a whole unit dedicated to this kind of stuff. In my professional opinion, he didn’t admit to anything that hasn’t been testified to in [previous court cases] by ‘police experts’ already.” Franklin was previously a public defender in Fulton County for more than a decade, and said he’s represented people who were alleged to be affiliated with YSL in previous cases.
In the Young Thug case, there’s been a lot of online speculation that prosecutors were giving out plea deals in an effort to guarantee a conviction against the “big fish,” Young Thug. But Johnson said the existence of a plea deal from alleged co-conspirators can’t be used against the defendants who decide to go to trial.
“I think there is a misconception that the purpose of plea bargaining is to help prosecutors win their case by getting members of a criminal organization to flip on other people. Sometimes that can be a benefit of plea bargaining for the state. But I think that the public sees that as a much bigger justification than it actually is for plea bargaining,” she said. “The much more common reason is it's a win for the prosecutor. They get the conviction. The case is over.”
Will Gunna actually have to testify?
One of the more controversial portions of the rapper’s plea deal stems from the fact that, as a part of his sentencing agreement, he’s agreed to “testify truthfully” if called to do so during the ongoing trial. Gunna’s legal team declined to comment for this story, but have previously noted he reserves the right to plead the fifth in the event he is called to testify.
Johnson said pleading the fifth if called to testify could provide some protection against future prosecution for any related crimes prosecutors might be investigating.
“It would not be wise to testify unless he had immunity that said, ‘Whatever you say here we cannot use to charge you for crimes related to this case.’ Whatever he pleads guilty to only resolves some universe of charges,” she said. “You would have to be very careful in a case like this where they’re saying it’s a gigantic universe of potential criminal acts.”
In a statement released to the public shortly before his release from jail, the rapper asserted that he didn’t plan on participating in the current trial. The statement read, in part: “While I have agreed to always be truthful, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have NOT made any statements, have NOT been interviewed, have NOT cooperated, have NOT agreed to testify or be a witness for or against any party in the case and have absolutely NO intention of being involved in the trial process in any way.”
The Fulton County District Attorney’s office declined to comment on an ongoing trial, but some legal experts said they don’t expect Gunna to be called to testify by the state. “It would be unusual to me to let somebody who you intend to call as a witness take an Alford plea,” Johnson said.
Franklin said a judge would have to rule on if it is “cumulative” for prosecutors to line up the eight people who have already taken a plea deal, and have them testify one by one that YSL is indeed a gang. Even if this was a tactic they wished to utilize and it was approved by the judge, prosecutors would still have to decide if having a jury hear from people who have already pleaded guilty versus hearing the same information from a police expert or other witnesses would benefit their case. More than 150 of the more than 370 people listed on the state’s list of potential witnesses are currently — or were previously — employed by the Atlanta Police Department.
Melissa Redmon, a University of Georgia law professor who previously worked in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office for a decade, agreed, saying: “I would not be surprised if the defendants who have already plead don’t testify.”
Photo Credit: Johnny Nunez/WireImage
What are the career implications of these allegations for Gunna?
Gunna was just released from jail in December, so it’s hard to say how any of this will impact his career long term, but a recent lyric from former collaborator Lil Durk hints at potential issues he might have when trying to work with old friends following his plea deal. In 2022, just before the YSL indictment was announced, Lil Durk released “What Happened to Virgil” with Gunna. In January, he released a snippet of a new song that hinted at the song and potentially new thoughts on Gunna. “What happened to Virgil, he probably gon’ tell,” Durk rapped, hinting at snitching rumors.
From his work with Thug and Lil Baby to his collaboration with Lil Durk, so much of Gunna’s career has centered on his relationships with other well-known rappers. If his peers are hesitant to work with him because his credibility has taken a hit (fairly or unfairly), the impact could be significant.
Jewel Wicker writes about entertainment and culture for publications such as Billboard, Teen Vogue, Atlanta magazine and GQ. The Atlanta native recently served as co-host and writer for the Crooked Media and Tenderfoot TV podcast Gaining Ground: The New Georgia.
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