Meek Mill was a rising teenage rapper when he first appeared in front of Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley, facing a number of drug and gun charges.
A decade has passed, and Mill has amassed a national fan base and a sizable fortune from concert tours and record sales.
But the criminal case that once sent Mill to prison for several months is far from over and has recently gained renewed and widespread national attention.
Mill is back behind bars for violating a probation that has lasted several years.
His lawyers have appealed that decision, and also asked Brinkley to recuse herself from the case.
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court denied the 30-year-old rapper’s emergency bail request, instructing Brinkley to rule “without further delay” on a bail petition filed by Mill’s attorneys Nov. 16.
Three days later, the judge denied the motion for bail. In her decision, released Monday, Brinkley called the rapper a “danger to the community” and a flight risk. One of Mill’s attorney said the judge’s decision “continues her long pattern of unfair treatment of him” and vowed to file an immediate appeal.
For weeks, the case has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia, where Meek Mill’s image is plastered on billboards, newsstands and public buses, and where crowds have taken to the streets to protest what they see as unusually harsh punishment and an overreach of judicial power.
Brinkley, the judge, has been under scrutiny, and her Philadelphia home has been scouted by news vans. She was condemned by some on social media, where #JUSTICE4MEEK and #FREEMEEKMILL have been gaining traction.
Who is Meek Mill?
Mill, born Robert Rihmeek Williams, grew up around music. The nephew of Philadelphia hip-hop legend Grandmaster Nell of Punk Funk Nation began freestyle rapping at age 12, according to a 2011 profile by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Mill also was no stranger to poverty and violence. His father was killed in a robbery when Mill was very young. As a kid who lived with his mother in the projects in North Philadelphia, Mill fought on the streets and dealt drugs, he told Vice in 2013.
He later became a figure in Philadelphia’s underground rap music scene and, by 2008, he had built a strong online following by posting his performances on YouTube and had released his first single, “In My Bag.”
Soon came stardom.
His debut studio album, “Dreams and Nightmares,” was released in 2012. “Dreams Worth More than Money,” released in 2015, was on the Billboard 200 chart for two weeks. His most recent album, “Wins & Losses,” debuted at No. 3 on the chart.
Why is he in prison?
Mill was arrested Jan. 24, 2007, on charges including drug possession and carrying a firearm without a license. Almost exactly two years later, Mill was found guilty, and Brinkley sentenced him to 11½ to 23 months in prison, followed by five years of probation.
He was released after eight months in 2009 for good behavior, and Mill picked up where he had left off in the music scene. But for several years, his criminal past clouded his otherwise successful career. He had violated his probation several times, usually for traveling out of Pennsylvania without court approval or without checking with his probation officer, and found himself in and out of Brinkley’s courtroom.
In 2013, Brinkley ordered Mill to take etiquette classes, saying they were “more important than any concerts he might have,” the New York Daily News reported.
In 2014, Brinkley revoked Mill’s probation after he again traveled out of town without the court’s permission. He was jailed for five months.
In 2016, Brinkley placed Mill on electronic monitoring for 90 days, ordered him to do community service and barred him from traveling.
Mill’s original five-year probation was extended several times during this time period.
This past year, Mill was arrested twice, first for a fight at an airport in St. Louis (the charges were later dropped) and again after he was seen on video doing dirt-bike stunts on Manhattan streets. He also tested positive for the painkiller Percocet.
On Nov. 7, Mill was back in Brinkley’s courtroom, where the judge made clear that the recent violations were the last straw.
“I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court,” she told Mill, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Mill begged for mercy, saying he did not intend to disrespect the court’s orders.
“I’m human. I’m not perfect . . . You gave me the ladder to do what I have to do to prevail in my struggle,” he told the judge, according to the Inquirer. “I made it this far, I can’t really go back and start over.”
The judge sent Mill to prison for two to four years, even though an assistant district attorney and Mill’s probation officer had recommended that he not be incarcerated.
Mill is now being held in a 1,175-bed medium-security prison in Chester, Pa. He isn’t eligible for parole for at least two years.
What are people saying?
Brinkley’s decision immediately drew condemnation, with some pointing at the mass incarceration of black people in the United States.
Hundreds of fans, as well as former Philadelphia 76er Julius Erving, Eagles player Malcolm Jenkins and rapper Rick Ross, rallied near Philadelphia’s City Hall on Monday to protest Mill’s imprisonment.
In a New York Times op-ed, Jay-Z said Mill’s incarceration shows, yet again, how the criminal justice system “entraps and harasses” black people.
“He has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside,” Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation manages Mill, wrote, adding later: “Taxpayers in Philadelphia, Meek Mill’s hometown, will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to keep him locked up, and I bet none of them would tell you his imprisonment is helping to keep them safer.”
Colin Kaepernick didn’t stay silent, either.
“Meek Mill is a victim of this systemic oppression,” Kaepernick said in a lengthy Instagram post, adding that there needs to be some kind of reform to keep people from incarceration over “nonviolent parole violations.”
One of Mill’s attorneys, Brian McMonagle, who represented comedian Bill Cosby in his sexual assault trial, said the sentence was “excessive, unjust, unfair.”
“There is no good reason for him to be sitting in prison today. None . . . We believe that this is such a wrong. The only way that it can be righted is to bring him home,” McMonagle told CBS Philly.
In late November, the Rev. Al Sharpton met with Mill in prison, then told reporters that the musician “is representative of many people in institutions like this that do little or nothing; they’re violated and their lives, their businesses are ruined,” the Associated Press reported.
What are the accusations against the judge?
Mill’s defense team is appealing his sentence. A motion filed in November asked for Brinkley to remove herself from the case, saying she had “assumed a nonjudicial, essentially prosecutorial role” in revoking Mill’s probation, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Defense attorneys point to a previous probation-violation hearing during which Brinkley told Mill that she went to a soup kitchen to make sure that Mill was feeding the homeless as part of his community service.
“It was only when you realized that I came there to check on you that you decided to serve meals,” she told Mill, according to the Inquirer.
Defense attorneys found that questionable, saying that by checking in on Mill, Brinkley made herself a “fact witness” as to whether Mill was following the court’s orders.
Brinkley has been accused, too, of offering “inappropriate personal and professional advice” to Mill. During a private meeting in the judge’s chambers last year, she allegedly asked Mill to record a version of Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” — and to include her name in it. Mill declined the request, saying he doesn’t sing ballads and doesn’t give “shout-outs” to people in his songs, according to Joe Tacopina, one of Mill’s attorneys.
“Okay, suit yourself,” Brinkley said, according to Tacopina, who wasn’t in the meeting.
Tacopina also accused Brinkley of advising Mill to drop Jay-Z’s management company and return to Philadelphia-based Charles “Charlie Mack” Alston.
Mill’s defense team has filed other motions to modify his sentence and bail.
Brinkley has avoided making public comments about Mill’s case. Pennsylvania’s code of judicial conduct, as in other states, prohibits judges from making public statements on pending cases.
Brinkley has been a judge in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, which hears both civil and criminal cases, since 1993.
She graduated with a degree in political science from Spelman College and obtained her law degree from Temple University.
What are legal experts saying?
Mill’s predicament is not at all new, but it has attracted more attention probably because of his celebrity.
Jules Epstein, law professor and director of advocacy programs at Temple University, said technical probation violations — which can include testing positive for drugs and staying out after a certain curfew — routinely send people back to jail.
“The standards before a judge revokes probation when there is only a technical violation are supposed to be a little more stringent,” he told The Washington Post. “Because we don’t want to send people back to jail. It’s very costly. It’s not very helpful. But one of the grounds for revoking probation and putting someone in jail is to vindicate the authority of the court.”
Epstein declined to comment about Mill’s sentence or the allegations that the rapper’s legal team has made against Brinkley. But speaking generally, he said that judges “have to maintain their role as judges,” and their inability to do so raises serious questions about their impartiality.
“Here’s what I think. Mr. Mill is incredibly lucky because he’s got a lot of money and a lot of friends with money,” Epstein said, adding later: “Mr. Mill is on the radar because of his prominence, but the problem of technical violations and parole revocations is off the radar, but happening every day to poor people.”
Lou Natali, a retired defense attorney, thinks Mill’s chances of success in appealing his sentence are slim.
“He’s not going anywhere with a claim of an excessive sentence or abuse of discretion,” Natali told the Inquirer. “There’s no law that helps him on that.”
This post has been updated.