She Took On Atlanta’s Gangs. Now She May Be Coming for Trump.
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Late on the first Sunday of 2021, news broke of President Donald J. Trump’s call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of Georgia, asking him to “find 11,780 votes” to help contest the 2020 election. The next morning — Monday, Jan. 4 — was Fani Willis’s first day in the office as the district attorney for Fulton County, which encompasses most of Atlanta, as well as suburbs like Sandy Springs, East Point and Alpharetta. “Not the second day,” she told me when I met with her in November. “My very first day in this office — in that conference room, it’s all over the TV.” She found herself hoping that the secretary of state might have been “in another county when it happened,” she said, laughing darkly. He was not. And so, Willis said, “I’m stuck with it.”
Outside Atlanta, Willis is now best known for this singular potential criminal target. Trump’s efforts to interfere in the outcome of the election in Georgia, in both phone calls to local officials and, potentially, as part of a scheme to organize alternate electors, have been under investigation by Willis’s office since February 2021. The Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and the former White House counsel Pat Cipollone have testified before a special grand jury; so have former Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Raffensperger himself. In January, the special grand jury completed its investigatory work, submitting a report to Willis’s office and to a Superior Court judge, based on which Willis may or may not send evidence to a regular grand jury to seek criminal charges against Trump or his allies. If she does, there is every indication that she might bring one of her favorite prosecutorial tools to bear: racketeering charges, as laid out in the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, more famously used to prosecute the Mafia and criminal street gangs.
Trump has attacked Willis on his Truth Social platform as a “young, ambitious, Radical Left Democrat ‘Prosecutor’ from Georgia, who is presiding over one of the most Crime Ridden and Corrupt places in the USA.” For a national audience not paying close attention to Atlanta politics, this claim might not sound fantastical. Willis, 51, is a Democrat and the first Black woman to serve as Fulton County district attorney — the first woman, period — and her victory in 2020 came amid a wave of reform-minded progressive prosecutors’ winning seats: George Gascón in Los Angeles, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Alvin Bragg in Manhattan.
Willis (center) with her team in 2022 during proceedings to seat a special-purpose grand jury in Fulton County to look into the actions of former President Donald Trump and his supporters.Credit…Ben Gray/Associated Press
But it was evident from the outset that Willis would represent something quite different. In July 2021, six months into her tenure, she appeared before the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, which holds bimonthly public meetings in an assembly hall in downtown Atlanta, to request additional personnel. By the time she spoke, the session had already stretched over eight hours, including several public comments questioning the integrity of the 2020 election. She was joined by Fulton County’s Sheriff Patrick Labat, who wore a tactical vest that made him look as if he’d arrived straight from a hostage situation. Willis had dressed more business casual — a black V-neck blouse with bell sleeves, her hair braided and pulled back — but it immediately became clear who would be taking charge.
“We have a public-safety crisis going on,” Willis began, coolly scanning her audience. Crime was rising, she said. Because of court backlogs and mismanagement by her predecessor, she argued, more dangerous individuals would end up on the streets unless she could hire more staff. Crime, she warned the commissioners, would be the primary issue in upcoming local elections. “None of your constituents is safe,” she thundered, sounding like a prosecutor facing another jury. “Not yours, Mr. Pitts — Chairman Pitts. Not yours, Commissioner Hall. Not yours, Commissioner Ellis.”
Her slides piled up dire statistics: rapes up 86 percent from the previous summer, murders up 25 percent, more than 1,400 unindicted suspects who could soon be bonded out of jail. “So maybe you’re thinking, Well, this ain’t really my issue, not in my district,” she said. “But no! The murders are occurring eve-ry-where.” Photographs of victims flashed on the screen. A woman killed in April in District 1. “This young lady, she was in her 70s. My mama would say that’s young. Her tenant bludgeoned her to death.” A man killed in District 3. “He’s a high exec at U.P.S. After a hard workweek, he went to have a drink. I think that’s his right. He walked up and became a victim to gang violence. He’s dead. I’m the one who talks to his mama. Next slide.” A little girl in District 3. “Her and her mama and auntie shopping at Christmas. Anyone here don’t go to the mall around Christmas? How about dead?” A Tony Award-nominated actor in District 4. “Gets in a verbal dispute, is followed home and shot in the back multiple times. Your district.”
And so it went, a virtuoso performance that had Sheriff Labat praising her, before his own remarks, as “the baddest D.A. in the country” and the commissioners offering full-throated, even profane support for her efforts. “[Expletive] the lowest millage rate!” shouted Marvin Arrington Jr., District 5’s commissioner, referring to the local tax burden. “We got to get these people locked up!” That September, the commission voted to appropriate an additional $5 million for Willis’s office.
Willis has described a number of her initiatives as D.A. as progressive, including a pretrial diversion program in which individuals accused of certain crimes can avoid being indicted by agreeing to restitution and community service. But her overriding focus has been public safety, and on that front she has been an unapologetic doomsayer, employing rhetoric on violence and gang activity that can leave her sounding, at times, as if she shares Trump’s dim assessment of local crime levels. Gangs, Willis claimed at a news conference last May, “are committing, conservatively, 75 to 80 percent of all the violent crime that we are seeing within our community. And so they have to be rooted out of our community.”
To that end, she quickly moved to expand her office’s gang unit. She has also pushed the Atlanta Police Department to seek more gang warrants and personally lobbied for the Safe and Secure Georgia Act, an attempt to make the state’s already-tough gang laws even tougher, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and increasing the power of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Willis suggested the name for the bill, which died in the statehouse; when a reporter from the Atlanta NBC affiliate pointed out during an interview that all 25 of its initial sponsors were Republicans, Willis responded that she was “happy to work with anyone who wants to help me in this fight against gang violence and crime.”
The election special grand jury inquiry is far from the only case helmed by Willis to make national news — or to open her up to criticism. In 2014, she was lead prosecutor on an infamous RICO case involving 35 teachers, principals and other educators in the Atlanta public-school system, who were accused of changing students’ answers on standardized tests for financial gain, a prosecution many observers found excessive. And since she took office, her crackdown on gangs has brought her in direct conflict with one of Atlanta’s biggest cultural exports, hip-hop music, in another series of cases that have drawn fire for potential overreach. There was a sweeping 105-count RICO indictment against 12 supposed members of various sets of the Bloods, including the Billboard-charting rapper YFN Lucci; later came gang charges and an indictment under RICO against the acclaimed artist Young Thug and 27 supposed associates (including another wildly popular rapper, Gunna), with members of the group accused of involvement in murder, armed robbery, drug dealing and witness intimidation. At a news conference in August, Willis announced the indictment of 26 supposed members of the Drug Rich gang, who were accused of attempted murder, armed robbery and a series of home invasions and burglaries targeting celebrities including Mariah Carey and the N.F.L. wide receiver Calvin Ridley. “We have a message,” she told the assembled reporters: “Get out of this county or expect to start seeing sentences that go life-plus, because I am not going to negotiate with gang members.”
When I visited her office late last year, Willis sat behind a large desk and indicated that I should take a seat on a couch about 10 feet away. Jeff DiSantis, her media-relations chief, sat in a corner, wearing cowboy boots and rarely glancing up from his laptop. Gov. Brian Kemp had just testified before the special grand jury that morning; if not for the rain, he might have walked over from his office in the Capitol building, only blocks away. Everyone I spoke with in Willis’s office referred to her as Madam D.A., and she faced me with her arms crossed and an apprising formality, the sort of person more used to asking the questions than answering them.
This steely reputation has cheered those who dream of seeing the Teflon ex-president in criminal peril. Willis has declined to discuss that investigation outside of opaque, highly disciplined statements, leaving observers searching for clues. Might she work her way up the chain, as RICO prosecutors often do, to Trump himself? Will a brazen violation of state election law turn out to be his biggest legal vulnerability? Is Willis prepared for a national partisan fight on a scale she has never experienced? “The reality is, we have a job, and the job is just to try to find the truth,” she told me, adopting the deliberate tone of a professional sharing reasonable but otherwise unexciting information. As for Trump: “We’re just going to do that case like every other. I don’t know why it’s shocking to people. If it turns out that charges are legitimate, we’re going to bring them. And if it turns out that charges are not warranted, we’re not going to bring them. We’re just going through the process.”
A better way to understand how Willis operates might be to consider how she reached this position in the first place. Willis came to the district attorney’s office by navigating a very particular set of political dynamics, and by doing so at a very specific moment in the history of Atlanta, the birthplace of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so-called Black Mecca — a moment marked by debates about crime and policing, along with roiling local protests that shaped perceptions of public order. How the politics surrounding all of these issues will play out remains an open question. But it’s one that Willis, a Black woman who ran with the endorsement of a police union, is positioned to test like few others. “I’m probably not a very good politician,” she told me. “But I’m a very good prosecutor.”
Willis was born in Inglewood, Calif., just outside Los Angeles, in 1971. Her father, John C. Floyd III, was a founder of the Black Panther Political Party in Los Angeles, of which Angela Davis was briefly a member. He eventually became a criminal defense attorney, having noticed over the course of many protest arrests that the lawyers who showed up to spring him and his comrades from jail were always white. The family moved to Washington as Willis entered first grade. Her parents split up a few years later, and her mother eventually returned to California. Willis mostly stayed with her father, whose caseload — in 1980s Washington, at the height of the crack epidemic — was “murders and dope boys,” she told me. When she was a teenager, he would issue dire warnings: You can’t go there. My client killed somebody over there. “I tease him sometimes now that it was child abuse, because at 8, I was putting his criminal files together,” Willis said.
From around that age, Willis knew she wanted to follow her father’s path. After graduating from Howard University, she moved to Atlanta to attend law school at Emory. Her first job was in the office of a defense lawyer named Alvin Kendall, working alongside another young Atlanta lawyer, the future Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. The volume and variety of cases — she arrived at one bond hearing only to recognize her client as the stripper from her bachelorette party — gave her confidence in the courtroom, and she eventually left to start her own practice. Not long after, “Alvin got into some trouble,” as Willis put it; in 1998, Kendall was disbarred and sentenced to prison for five years for conspiring to give a client advance warning of a criminal search. (He was reinstated in 2015.)
In 2001, Willis joined the Fulton County district attorney’s office. The D.A. at the time was Paul Howard, who had gone from picking cotton and attending a segregated high school outside Augusta to becoming, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the first African American district attorney in the entire state of Georgia. Willis describes him as a brilliant man: “I wanted to please him, so I worked really hard here,” she said. In the major-crimes unit, she tried over 100 murder cases, averaging a dozen per year. Eventually she became one of Howard’s chief deputies. “She was the superstar,” Antonio Lewis, an Atlanta City Council member, told me. “If you play basketball, LeBron James is better than everybody else, right? I’m telling you, people that worked with her in the office say: ‘Oh, that’s LeBron James. She’s better than us.’”
Willis’s first encounter with national headlines came in 2014, with what became known as the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. Most of the educators involved took plea deals, but prosecutors tried the final dozen on RICO conspiracy charges, winning racketeering convictions against 11. Critics found the prosecution excessive: the use of RICO, the eight-month trial, the prison sentences for some defendants. Questions were also raised about the decision to prosecute ordinary teachers for falsifying scores, rather than address systemic pressures or an overreliance on standardized tests. Willis remains unapologetic about the convictions. The prosecution “is not popular, meaning we don’t want to talk about it, but it absolutely needed to be done,” she says. “The reality is, if what they say in my obituary about me is ‘she stood up for Black children,’ then I’ll live with that.”
Despite Republican candidates’ relentless use of crime as a wedge issue in 2022, criminal-justice reform was actually a rare area of bipartisan consensus for much of Willis’s time working under Howard. This was thanks in part to former Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican elected in 2010 who previously worked as an assistant district attorney and served as a judge. He made his case for cutting the state’s soaring prison population in both fiscal and moral terms; across his eight years as governor, there was bipartisan support for reforms addressing sentencing, juvenile justice and cash bail. Under Deal, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, prison admissions of Black inmates dropped to historic lows, prison spending fell and programs treating nonviolent offenders expanded. Tiffany Roberts, the public-policy director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, told me that during those years national think tanks began “to look to Georgia for some direction”; the organization found itself working alongside not only liberal activists but also Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers.
Willis’s first run for an elected position came in 2018, around the close of Deal’s second term. By this point a divorced mother of two college-age daughters, Willis left the D.A.’s office and took $50,000 from her retirement fund to enter a race for Fulton County Superior Court judge, making it as far as the runoff election. Judge races in Georgia are nonpartisan, but she knew a number of voters would be Republicans, so she went to talk with a white Republican strategist on the north side of town. “I needed to be able to speak to that population, and I’m their perfect candidate, right?” she told me. “We’re conservative, we’re hard on crime, I’m a life prosecutor. And he told me something that was so hurtful.” She would never win those voters, the strategist said bluntly, because she was Black and female. “Your recording can’t pick up the way my face is, but I was like, ‘He don’t know what he’s talking about,’” Willis said. “That’s not the way people in my county think.” Still, that conversation, and her eventual loss, left her devastated. She remembers praying for guidance and sitting in her living room “feeling very lost.”
One figure who was elected that year was Gov. Brian Kemp, who won a second term last November. He has a very different approach to crime than his predecessor, including pledges to build more prisons, increase mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruitment and tighten bail restrictions. In a campaign ad last year, Kemp accused his opponent, Stacey Abrams, of “lining her pockets with cash from defund-the-police extremists.” By the 2020 election, Tiffany Roberts says, it was “almost like a scarlet letter to take on criminal legal reform in Georgia” — a “narrative change” that has “painted anyone interested in changing these systems as a radical.”
After her 2018 loss, Willis was appointed chief judge by the mayor of South Fulton, a separate city within Fulton County. She found the work boring — ruling on low-level misdemeanors in Municipal Court — but began making more money than ever before in her private practice. “I’m now representing a few athletes, they keep making babies, I’m doing family-law stuff with them,” she said. (She also represented at least one person connected with figures she would later target in a high-profile gang indictment — YSL Mondo, a Young Thug associate who, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, sounded surprised to see his former advocate prosecuting the group.) Life was good. “And then,” she went on, “Paul starts getting in trouble.”
Paul Howard had been district attorney for 23 years. He was preparing to run for a seventh term when claims of misconduct began to surface. A former Fulton County human-resources administrator accused him of sexual harassment in late 2019. In February 2020, his former deputy chief of staff filed a lawsuit accusing Howard of discriminating against her after learning of her pregnancy. Howard denied both allegations, but members of the Atlanta political and legal class could see blood in the water. People began reaching out to Willis, saying she was the only person who could beat Howard and warning about a Republican governor appointing his replacement if the scandals ultimately took him down.
She also heard from Mary Norwood, an independent who has run for mayor twice, served as a City Council member and lives in the wealthy, largely white Buckhead neighborhood. In the early 1990s, Norwood started one of the first robocall businesses, and she prides herself on knowing “the power of a short, simple message,” she says. One simple issue she had long been hammering was crime, despite her hailing from one of the lowest-crime districts in Atlanta. By early 2020, she had decided she wanted a new district-attorney candidate. Contrary to the meeting with the Republican strategist from two years earlier, Norwood left her meeting with Willis, a Black Democrat with a strong message on gang violence, a convert. Norwood raised funds for Willis’s campaign — “not real money, but early money,” she says — and urged her mostly Republican donors to choose a Democratic ballot in the primary and “help keep Buckhead safe” by voting in the D.A. race.
Willis “absolutely” felt that she would be betraying Howard by running, she told me. But soon after the primary began, another woman came forward to accuse Howard of sexual harassment, and news broke that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was looking into claims that Howard had improperly funneled city grant money to a nonprofit he was running. (Howard denied criminal wrongdoing, though he paid a fine to the Georgia State Ethics Commission; he declined to comment for this article. Two of the misconduct suits were dismissed, and one remains pending.) Willis came in first in the primary — with, according to Norwood, significant support from her Buckhead community. But a third candidate, another former attorney in the D.A.’s office, was running to the left of both Willis and Howard, preventing her from winning more than 50 percent of the vote. A runoff election was scheduled for that August.
The race unfolded in the summer of 2020, amid one of the most volatile environments in recent history. A pandemic raged, a presidential election loomed and national protests erupted — spinning, in Atlanta and other cities, in directions that would deeply complicate people’s feelings about law enforcement and public safety. On the night of June 12, just three days after Willis’s strong showing in the first round of voting, two white police officers arrived at a Wendy’s just south of downtown, where a 27-year-old Black man named Rayshard Brooks had fallen asleep in his car while idling at the drive-through. Brooks admitted to having been drinking, and his encounter with the officers proceeded for 40 minutes in a “cordial and uneventful” fashion, per a report later issued by special prosecutors. Only when an officer attempted to handcuff Brooks did things turn: Brooks wriggled away, grabbed and repeatedly fired an officer’s Taser and tried to flee. When Officer Garrett Rolfe pursued on foot, Brooks turned and tried to fire the Taser again. Rolfe fired three shots, striking Brooks twice in the back and left buttock and killing him.
This was less than three weeks after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Atlanta, downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park had already become a hub of Floyd protests, which Kim Jackson, an Episcopal priest and activist who had been serving as a protest chaplain since the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., described to me as among the most diverse she had ever witnessed in the city — old, young and “just an extraordinary amount of white people showing up.” The power of such numbers, she said, left her feeling hopeful, as if “maybe something’s going to happen.”
New footage of a white officer’s fatally shooting a Black suspect in the back only a few miles away was not the something Jackson had in mind. The day after Brooks’s killing, Rolfe was fired (though he would later be reinstated), Chief of Police Erika Shields resigned and the protests moved to the Wendy’s parking lot.
Antonio Lewis, now a City Council member, was running for his seat at the time; he went straight to the Wendy’s site as soon as he heard there was a shooting, unaware that the victim was somebody he grew up with. (“We actually called Rayshard Little Mac,” he told me. “Nobody where I’m from called him Rayshard.”) The mood there was initially positive, according to Jackson, the priest and activist. But when evening came she detected a shift. Families took their children home. New people arrived. Water bottles were thrown. Police officers deployed smoke canisters. That night, people set fire to the Wendy’s.
Within days, Howard’s office announced indictments of both police officers involved in the shooting. To Norwood, the city councilwoman from Buckhead, the indictments were motivated by Howard’s poor showing in the first round of voting: “He was looking for, ‘I’m the tough guy, and I’m going to indict the police.’ So that’s why he did it. He did it as a campaign stunt.” Willis said she was “deeply concerned” that her opponent had moved faster than the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and urged “the community and the media to keep in mind the many cases involving police use of force that Mr. Howard has lacked the courage to act upon.” Howard’s action drew stronger denunciations from other quarters: The head of a Georgia police organization said the D.A. had “just successfully set up the city for another riot,” while the Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared that Howard had cravenly decided to “bow immediately to the mob’s demands.”
Willis accused Howard of tainting any potential prosecution by using footage of the Brooks shooting in a campaign ad and predicted that he would be arrested because of his financial impropriety before the end of the year. Howard, in a debate, hammered Willis for receiving an endorsement and campaign contributions from a police union and pointed out that, as she had happily spent most of her career working for him, voters might reasonably wonder, “If this guy was so bad, why did you stay with him for 16 years?” (When I asked Willis if she had been aware of any inappropriate behavior by Howard, she said curtly, “I knew there were issues.”)
The site of the burned restaurant, which had held both a demonstration and a memorial, morphed into occupied territory. Parked cars and debris obstructed University Avenue in both directions. A block-party vibe continued by day: On June 19, people served barbecue from a smoker and families ate with their children in front of the charred Wendy’s, its freckled mascot smiling down from the still-standing sign. By evening, though, a young Black man marched down the street carrying a long gun, followed by another man in camouflage pants and a black SECURITY T-shirt; moments later, a 24-year-old protester was shot in the leg. The following day, a man was wounded in a drive-by shooting, and George Chidi, an independent journalist, was beaten up by armed vigilantes. Bill Torpy, a columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, visited the site the next afternoon and was told by men with guns not to make any sudden moves or he would be shot. The barricades had become an armed checkpoint. Torpy witnessed two police cars approach, then drive away. Lewis, the city councilman, contends that some of the armed people were trying, in however misguided a way, to protect the space. “But what happened was they did it totally wrong. The city of Atlanta should have stepped in.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor and Willis’s former colleague, would later acknowledge in an interview with The Journal-Constitution’s editorial board that she had held off on sending police officers to clear the area at the behest of Joyce Sheperd, the City Council member representing the district, whom Lewis was running to replace. Sheperd wanted more time to negotiate with the demonstrators. But there was also another reason for the lack of police presence: In the days following Howard’s decision to indict, 171 Atlanta police officers out of a force of 2,000 called in sick, in what local news outlets began calling a “blue flu.”
On June 23, Brooks’s funeral was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached; Ebenezer’s pastor, the future Senator Raphael Warnock, presided. The progressive third-place finisher in the district-attorney primary, Christian Wise Smith, would soon publicly endorse Howard, praising his former boss for embracing “the movement of the people for a more progressive and restorative justice system.”
On the evening of July 4, a man named Omar Ivery approached a roadblock near University in a Jeep Cherokee owned by his friend Charmaine Turner, who rode in the passenger seat. Her 8-year-old daughter, Secoriea, was in the back. When Ivery tried to drive past the barricade, a group of armed individuals opened fire on the Jeep, striking and killing the child.
The Fourth of July was a Saturday. By Monday morning, the police had peacefully cleared the site of barricades, protesters and even the Brooks memorial. At a news conference, Mayor Bottoms noted that “Paul Howard made the decision to charge the officers. Paul Howard did not consult with me. He made that decision, and people can go to the polls and express how they feel about that decision in a few weeks.”
Willis had already won the most votes in the first round of the primary, but now momentum was swinging overwhelmingly in her direction. She won the Aug. 11 runoff in a landslide, with over 70 percent of the vote. No Republican was running for D.A. in Fulton County, so winning the primary sealed the general election for Willis. Six months later, she would be opening her investigation of Trump.
Shortly after her election, Willis sent a letter to local law-enforcement agencies indicating that her office would be prioritizing gangs. Citing one of her new recruits — Mike Carlson, a Republican who was instrumental in the development of the state’s gang laws and is now executive district attorney for major crimes — the letter asked the police to “bring us cases under the street-gang act so we can prosecute them.” Willis told me that her approach to gangs has been a “completely different one” from her predecessor’s, “just the way I’ve manned it up, meaning put the resources in there.” She added staff and technology and trained the Atlanta Police Department on identifying gang signifiers and writing gang warrants, resulting in what she says is a 300 percent increase in the department’s gang warrants.
Willis’s office would employ the Georgia gang statute in August 2021, when a grand jury indicted Julian Conley and Jerrion McKinney for their roles in the death of Secoriea Turner. (Both have pleaded not guilty.) The D.A.’s office claimed that Conley and McKinney were Bloods who had come out to support Brooks, a fellow Blood. Brooks was on probation for domestic violence and theft offenses, but his family has denied any knowledge of gang membership. According to Gerald Griggs, the president of the Georgia chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., the power structure in Atlanta seized on Turner’s killing as an opportunity to change the narrative: “You know, ‘These were gang members out here, they were supporting Rayshard, Rayshard was a gang member, we got to do something about the gangs.’ And from all accounts of the people that I’ve spoken to who knew Rayshard Brooks, there was no indication that he was a gang member.”
As for Brooks, Willis requested to have herself recused from the case, and she eventually was. A final report issued by special prosecutors found that the officers reacted in an “objectively reasonable manner” by using deadly force because Brooks “posed an immediate threat of physical violence” — though Brooks was 18 feet away, running in the opposite direction and holding an unloaded Taser. Willis told me it would be inappropriate for her to comment on that decision and would say only that, in her view, Howard’s handling of the indictment had been “unfair to the gentleman who lost his life, and certainly his family, and it was unfair to the police, because they do also have a right to due process.”
Sidestepping a politically messy decision on whether or not to prosecute police officers has allowed Willis to keep her focus primarily on gangs. But the size of the net Georgia’s street-gang statute hands prosecutors, and Willis’s frequent use of it, have raised concerns for critics. Carlson describes Georgia’s gang laws as “in many ways the most powerful” in the country because of provisions making earlier criminal activities as a gang member “presumptively admissible” in court. (In most criminal trials, bringing up past actions to demonstrate criminal propensity is forbidden.) Devin Franklin, who joined the Southern Center for Human Rights last March, spent the 12 previous years as a lawyer in the public defenders’ office, where, he told me, he noticed a pattern: Lower-level crimes were elevated because they were supposedly committed by a person affiliated with a gang. An individual crime like gun possession could be enhanced by gang charges on the logic that the offender was lending “credibility” to a larger criminal organization. Or, sometimes, the state would bring a case in which “a neutral body would say the evidence is fairly weak,” Franklin said, but attaching a gang charge allowed prosecutors to shift focus toward the “general violence of the gang,” forcing the accused to defend themselves “against this narrative of, ‘I’m a violent person, because I hang with quote-unquote “thugs.” ’”
Willis’s approach to high-profile gang prosecutions offers a window into how she might proceed with a target like Trump. In particular, there is her unsparing deployment of RICO indictments, even as critics question their breadth. Last year’s 56-count indictment of Young Thug’s YSL group, for example — the name signifying both a record label and, per Willis’s office, an associated criminal organization — included charges of murder and armed robbery but also cited social-media posts, minor offenses like dealing marijuana and, in what has drawn the most pushback, song lyrics as examples of furthering the conspiracy. Carlson, who comes from a family of bluegrass musicians, says he is comfortable with citing lyrics in these circumstances: “Lyrics of skinhead and other white-supremacist groups have been used for decades in racketeering and gang-related prosecutions for hate crimes. Is somebody suggesting we should stop that?” At a news conference, Willis defended the practice, quoting lyrics by a Drug Rich member including “we’ll kick in the house” and “if we steal a car, we’re gonna take off the tags.” “I have some legal advice,” she said. “Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used. Or at least get out of my county.”
Jury selection for the YSL case began, chaotically, in January. Young Thug was caught apparently accepting a Percocet from one of his co-defendants in the courtroom. Eight of the 28 men named in the indictment, including Gunna, have accepted plea deals; the judge estimates that the trial of the others could last between six and nine months, with Willis’s office already promising as many as 300 possible witnesses. Such a length would approach that of the longest criminal trial in Georgia’s history: the 2014 RICO trial of the educators accused in the standardized-test-cheating scheme, for which Willis served as lead prosecutor.
Shani Robinson, one of the convicted teachers, co-wrote a 2019 book about her experience, “None of the Above.” She is not a fan of Willis, to put it mildly; the book describes her as “holding forth like a fire-and-brimstone preacher.” (Also, “having a penchant for dull blazers.”) Robinson’s account of Willis’s opening argument, during which she explained to jurors how RICO worked, gets at the tension between what Willis and her office see as critical tools and what critics consider overreach: “ ‘The act of one conspirator is the act of all,’ she gravely stated. She added that people don’t have to meet in person or agree on anything to be conspirators. ‘But what you do have to do is all be doing the same thing for the same purpose.’”
Robinson was a first-grade teacher whose students’ standardized tests were considered practice. They did not count academically or apply toward any district targets, Robinson says, adding that she never received any kind of bonus pay. She has always insisted upon her innocence and refused to take a plea deal, despite the threat of up to 25 years in prison and a RICO prosecution that, she said, placed pressure on defendants to plead guilty and testify against others. When we met at a Starbucks in Atlanta, nine years after the original trial, her case was still making its way through the appeal process.
“This is what I’ve come across, especially dealing with the media, especially dealing with the liberal media: Fani is a Black woman, a Democrat, who is going after Trump, and people just want to turn a blind eye,” she told me. “And I’m like, She’s a Black woman who is trying to send other Black women who have children to prison! She asked the judge to give me prison time even though I had a 4-month-old baby at home.” The N.A.A.C.P.’s Griggs, a criminal defense attorney who represented another of the teachers at the original trial, told me he considered the prosecution “a colossal waste of taxpayer money. I don’t think a single child benefited from the trial. I think that teachers who had nothing to do with the actual cheating that happened in Atlanta public schools were punished for things that happened at the top.”
Willis remains proud of her work on a trial that was so record-shatteringly long and complicated. She left the D.A.’s office to run for judge in part, she told me, because she found herself thinking, “What case is ever going to be bigger than that?”
Now she could be facing a much bigger case: the potential prosecution of a former president. Considering the known facts and Willis’s demonstrated skill at presenting juries with sprawling conspiracy cases, a lengthy RICO trial is a distinct possibility. But it’s an approach she would be choosing in the highest-pressure context imaginable — one that would require both a huge investment of her office’s resources and a political appetite for a good deal of backlash and spectacle.
If Willis has ambitions beyond the office of the Fulton County district attorney, she hasn’t spoken publicly about them. From a political standpoint, her only real misstep thus far has been hosting a fund-raiser last summer for Charlie Bailey, a former colleague at the D.A.’s office who was running for lieutenant governor. Bailey’s Republican opponent, Burt Jones, was one of 16 fake Trump electors Willis’s office was investigating, and the fund-raiser drew a sharp rebuke from Judge Robert McBurney of the Fulton County Superior Court — the same judge tasked with deciding whether to make public the special grand jury’s report — who called it a “what are you thinking” moment that created “horrific” optics and disqualified Willis from proceeding with her investigation of Jones.
There was a scenario in which a Democrat like Willis, with her tough-as-nails messaging on crime, could have been not entirely unlike Governor Deal before her, better positioned to deliver on some reforms the left wing of the party has been fighting for — especially considering how, over the past year, reformists have experienced backlashes in places like San Francisco and New York. Kim Jackson, the chaplain at the Brooks protests, has since been elected to the State Senate, and she told me she supported Willis with a sense of excitement: A Black woman running on an anti-death-penalty platform seemed about as progressive as she could hope for. But three months into Willis’s tenure, a horrific mass shooting occurred at multiple spas in and around Atlanta, leaving eight dead, mostly Asian women, in what appeared to be a hate crime. Not long after, Willis announced that she would seek the death penalty for the accused shooter. And though Willis campaigned on pretrial diversion in lieu of prison time as one of her major reform issues, a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union on overcrowded and unsafe conditions at the Fulton County Jail cited insufficient use of diversion and a failure to indict arrested individuals in a timely manner as two major factors.
Willis told me the report was “a joke” and offered several arguments for why the data was flawed. “We’ve probably got 25 people in Fulton County Jail on a misdemeanor, and they’re there for 48 hours,” she said. “Unfortunately,” she added, “a lot of people with crimes that I think a regular citizen would say, ‘Hey, they need to stay in jail, they burglarized my house’ — that’s not even the kind of people that stay in jail here. People are given bail.”
But the morning after we spoke, I sat in the back of a courtroom where the judge was holding a series of preliminary hearings for jail inmates, all Black men, who had been arrested and held since mid-July. One, accused of stealing equipment from a landscaping truck, had been in jail for 112 days; another, accused of smashing storefront windows, had been locked up for 116. It turned out that the initial police report had overestimated the amount of damage, presenting the crime as a felony rather than what it actually was, a misdemeanor.
Nearly two years into Willis’s term, “I give her all the positive marks for going after President Trump,” Jackson told me. “I think it’s a courageous move. And I think it’s the right move.” She paused. “Yeah, that’s my praise.” And her criticism? Jackson sighed and said Willis had come to the State Senate to make a presentation about public safety, talking about gangs and other crime. Jackson had studied local crime statistics during the pandemic, however, and found a more complicated picture: murders up, other major crimes down. As Willis spoke, “I’m literally looking at the statistics — like, they’re on my desk right in front of me,” Jackson recounted. “So I just struggled with that,” she said. “I mean, I understand what it is to be a politician. And I understand that we have to respond to public pressure. But I don’t think we have to add fuel to the fire. And there have been times — I’m trying to be very careful here, because I respect her — but there have been times in which I felt like she added fuel to a fire that we could have easily put out.”
The N.A.A.C.P.’s Griggs, who has known Willis since he was an undergraduate and working alongside her in the city solicitor’s office, calls her “a great lawyer, a consummate prosecutor,” but continues, “I just think that, you know, sometimes she’s a little too gung ho. And I think that justice is somewhere in the middle.” We met in his law office, and when I brought up Trump, Griggs pulled a book from his shelf and read aloud from Title 21, the state elections law, which bars “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud.” If you played the recording of Trump’s phone conversation to a grand jury and then read the state codes, Griggs told me, “they will indict him.” Griggs said it was interesting to find himself, in this case, on the “other side of the ‘v.’” — meaning, on the side of the prosecution rather than the defense. He didn’t say if this particular prosecutor gave him hope, but he sounded upbeat as he noted that the former president, if indicted, would receive his due process “not on Fox News, not on his Truth Social, but in a Georgia courtroom.”
Mark Binelli is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the opera director Yuval Sharon, and before that about the tangled legal aftermath of a deadly Waco, Texas, biker brawl. Nydia Blas is an Atlanta-based visual artist who is interested in storytelling through a Black female perspective. She was named one of The British Journal of Photography’s Ones to Watch in 2019.