If I would have known I was going to spend my day within arm’s length of an international superstar, I probably would have brushed my hair.
In fact, there was a ton of star power in the front row of courtroom 907 in the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center: Renowned producer Kenny Gamble, a woman who was a life coach for Mary J. Blige and, square in front of me, Nicki Minaj.
They joined dozens of other family members (and a healthy contingent of largely local reporters) for the sentencing of rapper Meek Mill, AKA Robert Williams. Hours later, he’d leave the court with six to 12 months of house arrest, having repeatedly violated probation for a six-year-old drug and firearm charge.
“Maybe you need to focus more on who Robert is than who Meek Mill is,” prosecutor Noel DeSantis admonished the performer. The assistant district attorney didn’t actually recommend a sentence for Williams, instead leaving it up to Judge Genece Brinkley, who’s dealt with the rapper since he was first found guilty in 2009.
It ended with a room of confused family members and reporters, all unsure what the sentence actually was, since immediately after concluding, the judge took just Williams and Minaj into her chambers for a conference.
The hearing took five hours. For almost all of it, I didn’t have my phone. Here’s what it was like.
Courtroom 907 isn’t as big as courtrooms look in the movies. It’s just four rows — press sat in the first two on the left side, and Williams hand-selected family members and close friends to fill out his entourage that took up seats in the rest of the courtroom.
Among the people there: State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat who represents parts of south and southwest Philadelphia. Gamble, of Gamble and Huff, who has served as a mentor for Williams throughout his experience in the criminal justice system. Dyana Williams, who isn’t related to Meek Mill but is his new life coach. She’s worked with artists like Mary J. Blige and T.I. and helps them acclimate to a life of fame and fortune. Rev. Damon Jones, of West Philly, and Judge Jimmy Moore also were there to testify on his behalf.
And then there was Nicki Minaj, who walked in after Williams had already entered and sat front and center. Her hair was straight, and she was wearing a blue blazer, black leggings, what appeared to be six-inch heels and that massive diamond engagement ring Williams gave her last April. She also had on a diamond-encrusted, gold watch and was carrying a denim cross-body purse.
Throughout the hearing, she sat attentively, perched up and paying attention. When she first walked in, the judge was in the process of explaining to the courtroom that electronic transmission was banned, but that apparently someone — unclear who — was tweeting during Williams’ last probation violation hearing.
“They all on their phones,” Minaj said under her breath.
The judge was way ahead of her. A court official came over to the press area and asked every reporter to put their phones in a box so the court could ensure that no one was live tweeting the sentencing hearing.
But other than a few side comments — she snickered when the defense attorney said Williams told kids he was mentoring not to ask him about her — Minaj was quiet and attentive throughout the sentencing hearing. Williams was, too. He briefly testified before closing arguments to apologize to the court for repeatedly violating his probation and to thank his probation officer and the assistant district attorney for working with him.
Neither had much of a reaction after the sentencing came down, largely because most of the room was confused as to what the sentence actually was.
Throughout the hearing, the judge said on multiple occasions that last time Williams had violated his probation (it happened a total of four times), she told him that if he ended up back in her courtroom, she’d be sentencing him to spend time in state prison, a sentence that would carry a four to eight year stint.
When it was time to reveal her decision, she started off by saying that she’d sentenced Williams to six to 12 months in Philadelphia county prison followed by six years of probation. But then she started discussing a 90-day house arrest window and was explaining to Williams that his house arrest would began on March 1 after the probation office outfits his home.
As soon as she was finished, she asked Williams and Minaj to join her alone in her chambers and left the courtroom.
So the dozen or so reporters covering the hearing approached the district attorney’s communications director and the assistant district attorney to get an explanation of what the sentence actually was. Because Williams had accrued time served, he was essentially “immediately paroled” from his jail sentence.
It gets more complicated. The house arrest is to last six to 12 months, but the judge will re-evaluate his status after 90 days and based on his behavior, could change the terms of his house arrest. But for now, they’re this: Williams is prohibited from leaving his home except to perform daily community service that he’ll have to report to his probation officer. That means no going to the studio, no performing shows, no showing up at Sixers games with Minaj.
And his community service has stipulations, too. The judge ordered that he is only allowed to work with organizations that 1. Serve homeless adults. 2. Build homes or other structures. 3. Work with seniors or veterans. That means Williams, who was publicly proud of the work he’d done recently with teenagers, is no longer going to be mentoring kids.
In fact, during the hearing, Brinkley called the fact that Williams was visiting schools and giving talks to kids “inappropriate,” as his involvement in the criminal justice system is still largely playing out.
Witnesses including Moore, Gamble and Jones testified that since Williams was found guilty of violating his probation in December and was ordered to stay in southeastern Pennsylvania, he’s applied himself and completed charity work throughout the region, including talking to homeless teenagers and making popcorn on movie night for elderly veterans.
During the same time period, he donated $50,000 to Flint, Mich. following the crisis over the city’s water supply, provided food and toiletries to the homeless in LOVE Park, spent more time with his 3-year-old than ever before and applied to get a college degree through an online program. His supporters told the judge he’s a changing man.
“He’s at a point now at 28 years young that he wants to do right,” Dyana Williams, his life coach, said, adding that she wants him “to be a shining example of turning a corner.”
Williams spoke about how he’s changed for more than an hour when the judge brought him and the attorneys back into her chambers, and he said publicly that he was willing to continue doing community service work in Philadelphia, so long as the judge didn’t sentence him to prison time.
Brinkley still seemed unconvinced. She’s been around the block with Williams before, and hasn’t hid her disdain for his inability to follow the rules of reporting where he’s traveling and regularly communicating with his probation officer. He was sentenced to three to six months in county jail in 2014 for a similar problem.
This time around, he was told he couldn’t make or perform music after being found guilty, whether it was charitable or moneymaking. Then last month he dropped a mixtape after his beef with Drake was made public. He said it was necessary because he had to “protect his brand.”
Yet the judge also demonstrated throughout the hearing, along with the assistant district attorney, that Williams has been afforded opportunities since 2009 that typical defendants in Philadelphia don’t get.
He didn’t have to check into probation as often as others. He was allowed to have 1-on-1 calls with the judge instead of appearing in court. He was allowed much wider travel latitude than anyone else. Brinkley said it’s because she believed — and still does believe — in him.
“At every stage of my dealings with him, I knew he could have a phenomenal career in the music business, greater than Jay Z,” Brinkley said. “And I saw that in 2009. But he has not done what I could see that he could do.”