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Monday, September 12, 2022

In Atlanta, a Local Prosecutor Takes on Murder, Street Gangs and a President


In Atlanta, a Local Prosecutor Takes on Murder, Street Gangs and a President

Fani T. Willis has emerged as one of the most consequential legal threats to Donald Trump while presiding over the justice system in Georgia’s most populous county.

Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, in Atlanta last month.
Audra Melton for The New York Times

ATLANTA — Fani T. Willis strode up to a podium in a red dress late last month in downtown Atlanta, flanked by an array of dark suits and stone-faced officers in uniform. Her voice rang out loud and clear, with a hint of swagger. 

“If you thought Fulton was a good county to bring your crime to, to bring your violence to, you are wrong,” she said, facing a bank of news cameras. “And you are going to suffer consequences.”

Ms. Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, Ga., had called the news conference to talk about a street gang known as Drug Rich, whose members had just been indicted in a sprawling racketeering case. But she could have been talking about another crew that she is viewing as a possible criminal enterprise: former President Donald J. Trump and his allies who tried to overturn his narrow 2020 election loss in Georgia.

In recent weeks, Ms. Willis has called dozens of witnesses to testify before a special grand jury investigating efforts to undo Mr. Trump’s defeat, including a number of prominent pro-Trump figures who traveled, against their will, from other states. It was long arm of the law stuff, and it emphasized how her investigation, though playing out more than 600 miles from Washington, D.C., is no sideshow.

Rather, the Georgia inquiry has emerged as one of the most consequential legal threats to the former president, and it is already being shaped by Ms. Willis’s distinct and forceful personality and her conception of how a local prosecutor should do her job. Her comfort in the public eye stands in marked contrast to the low-key approach of another Trump legal pursuer, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

Ms. Willis, 50, a Democrat, is the first Black woman to lead Georgia’s largest district attorney’s office. In her 19 years as a prosecutor, she has led more than 100 jury trials and handled hundreds of murder cases. Since she became chief prosecutor, her office’s conviction rate has stood at close to 90 percent, according to a spokesperson.

Her experience is the source of her confidence, which appears unshaken by the scrutiny — and criticism — the Trump case has brought.

Poll workers sort ballots in Decatur, Ga., in 2021.
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

She tends to speak as if the world were her jury box. Sometimes she is colloquial and warm. In a recent interview, she noted, as an aside, how much she loved Valentine’s Day: “Put that in there, in case I get a new boo,” she said. But she can also throw sharp elbows. In a heated email exchange in July over the terms of a grand jury appearance by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, Ms. Willis called the governor’s lawyer, Brian McEvoy, “wrong and confused,” and “rude,” among other things.

“You have taken my kindness as weakness,” she wrote, adding: “Despite your disdain this investigation continues and will not be derailed by anyone’s antics.”

Understand Georgia’s Trump Election Investigation

An immediate legal threat to Trump. Fani T. Willis, the Atlanta area district attorney, has been investigating whether former President Donald J. Trump and his allies interfered with the 2020 election in Georgia. The case could be one of the most perilous legal problems for Mr. Trump. Here’s what to know:

The phrase “I don’t like a bully,” is one Ms. Willis deploys often. After taking office in January, she had a quote from Malcolm X painted on the wall as a sort of mission statement: “I’m for truth no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.”

Ms. Willis, as a child, split time between her divorced parents. Her father was a former Black Panther and criminal defense lawyer who practiced in the Washington, D.C., area. He brought her to the courthouse often and put her to work as his file clerk starting in elementary school. A career in law, she said, was never in doubt.

She attended Howard University, then moved to Atlanta to attend Emory Law School. She felt at home in Atlanta: As an undergraduate, she had attended Freaknik, the boisterous, mostly Black Atlanta street party that became a headache for city leaders and an inspiration for the novelist Tom Wolfe’s satirical exploration of the Southern city and its racial divides. She settled down in the area, raising two girls as a working single parent and finding her calling in the prosecutor’s office. She took on murder cases for eight years straight.

“I wore a pager and got up in the middle of the night and walked over bodies,” she said. “And I know what kind of pain it causes when you lose someone.”

The experience helped set her on a philosophical course to the right of America’s new wave of progressive prosecutors, as well as her liberal father (“We have knockdown, drag ’em out arguments,” she said) but to the left of the traditional lock-them-up crowd.

“You have all these extreme people who think that there should not be prisons. They’re crazy,” she said. “There are people out here who will take your life and think nothing of it — go have lunch, like, literally think zero about taking your life — and they have to be removed from society. But then you also have these other crazy people that think everyone should go to jail. That’s also kind of — that’s crazy, right?”

She has declined to answer questions about the likely course of her investigation as it specifically pertains to Mr. Trump, but his indictment in Georgia remains a plausible scenario, particularly given his call to the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in January 2021, in which the then-president asked Mr. Raffensperger to “find” the votes to put him over the top. Some legal experts contend that this call alone may have violated a state law against the solicitation to commit election fraud.

Ms. Willis has indicated that she may pursue the range of election-meddling efforts in Georgia as a multi-defendant racketeering case, much as she has against Drug Rich and other street gangs.

Fani Willis takes notes during testimony in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in 2015.
Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via AP

It is unclear what this means for Mr. Trump, who has spent his business and political career wiggling out from complicated legal entanglements. He commands a loyal and enormous following, a multimillion dollar war chest for paying lawyers and a bully pulpit that never shuts down.

In May, he took to his social media site, Truth Social, to blast Ms. Willis.

“The young, ambitious, Radical Left Democrat ‘Prosecutor’ from Georgia, who is presiding over one of the most Crime Ridden and Corrupt places in the USA, Fulton County, has put together a Grand Jury to investigate an absolutely ‘PERFECT’ phone call to the Secretary of State,” Mr. Trump wrote.

Ms. Willis, in the interview, was asked to respond. “I mean, if crime happens in my jurisdiction, who’s going to investigate it?” she said, adding: “I do not have the right to look the other way on a crime that could have impacted a major right of people in this community and throughout the nation.”

Atlanta, which lies mostly in Fulton County, certainly has its share of crime. The city recorded its 100th homicide of the year on Aug. 10, surpassing the number of homicides for all of 2019. Burglaries and breaking and entering cases are up nearly 20 percent over last year, according to Atlanta police statistics.

These are a big-city prosecutor’s more traditional concerns, and adding Trumpworld to Ms. Willis’s case load has made for some odd juxtapositions. On Aug. 29, her office filed a brief in federal court arguing why the U.S. Constitution should not shield Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump ally, from testifying.

That same day, Ms. Willis was telling the media how the Drug Rich gang had targeted local celebrities including Marlo Hampton, a star of the show “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” in a string of home invasions and burglaries. Ms. Willis said she was a fan of the show, and she warned the city’s reality stars against showing viewers where they kept their most valuable possessions. “It’s just not wise to do,” she said.

Before the Trump investigation, Ms. Willis’s most high-profile case, as an assistant prosecutor, was against a group of Atlanta public school system educators, who were indicted in 2013 and charged with racketeering for altering students’ standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators.

Ms. Willis said the size of that case, with its 3,000-person witness list, helped prepare her for the Trump inquiry. She also learned how to handle intense controversy. Most of the defendants were Black. So were many of her critics, who were displeased by the sight of teachers from a struggling urban school district put on trial. She was called a sellout, she said, and worse.

Her biggest misstep in the Trump case came in July, when a judge strictly limited her office’s involvement in the investigation of Burt Jones, a state senator and the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Mr. Jones was one of 16 Republicans who signed documents identifying themselves as presidential electors and pledged their votes to Mr. Trump. All 16 have been told by the D.A.’s office that they are targets of the investigation. But Mr. Jones’s lawyer brought up the fact that Ms. Willis had headlined a fund-raiser for Mr. Jones’s Democratic rival, Charlie Bailey. The presiding judge called it an “untenable” conflict. Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, called it a “huge misstep.”

Ms. Willis said she would not have attended the fund-raiser if she could do it over again. But she said that she had grown close to Mr. Bailey when she ran the D.A.’s trial division and he worked for her. “He’s one of my babies, as I like to call him,” she said.

These days, her critics come from the left and right. Phil Kent, a conservative-leaning Georgia political commentator, argued that Ms. Willis’s priorities were misplaced. “She is wasting time, money and resources on the special grand jury that ought to be applied to going after the backlog of cases, especially when there’s rising violent crime,” he said.

Ms. Willis said that she has just five lawyers working on the Trump case, out of a total of roughly 140 on her staff.

Some liberals, meanwhile, have criticized her use of rap lyrics in building her anti-gang cases, which have included charges against notable Atlanta hip-hop stars like Young Thug and Gunna. The Drug Rich indictment, for example, makes use of boastful lyrics by alleged associates of the gang in a YouTube video (“If we steal a car, we gonna take off the tag”), citing them as an “overt act” in furtherance of racketeering activity.

Ms. Willis stands by the tactic: “If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it.”

She has received violent threats since May from people angry over the indictment of Young Thug and members of his crew. Before that, she had asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to provide “intelligence and federal agents” and to increase security at the Fulton County courthouse after Mr. Trump referred to her and other prosecutors as “vicious, horrible people” at a rally in January.

Gerald A. Griggs, president of the Georgia N.A.A.C.P., who worked with Ms. Willis in the Atlanta solicitor’s office years ago, called Ms. Willis “a phenomenal prosecutor.”

“But she’s drinking the Kool-Aid,” said Mr. Griggs, who added that she was focusing too much on incarcerating poor Black people and not doing enough to address social ills.

In response, Ms. Willis rattled off a list of innovations she had implemented, including changes to alternative sentencing and diversion programs, and a criminal justice class for public school children.

“Mr. Griggs,” she said, “don’t know what he’s talking about.”

In Atlanta, a Local Prosecutor Takes on Murder, Street Gangs and a President

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