When Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis took office on January 3, 2021, she pledged to restore integrity to her district. That same day it came to light that, 24 hours earlier, Donald Trump had phoned Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and asked him to “find” a sufficient number of votes to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, which Joe Biden won by a narrow margin.
In less than a month, the first Black woman to head the prosecutor’s office of Fulton County — the most populous in Georgia, covering the state capital, Atlanta — had filled the offices of state authorities and election officials with letters demanding that they keep all documents on any possible attempts to overturn the election. “I knew an investigation may be warranted on day one,” Willis told USA Today in 2022. The Trump phone call was “enough to raise eyebrows and even cause grave concern,” she said.
The investigation that she opened two and a half years ago extended well beyond that call between Trump and Raffensperger. It also examined a plot to use fake electors in a bid to capture the state’s electoral votes for Trump rather than Biden; the harassment of election officials, and the illegal access to the computer systems of electronic voting machines in a rural, conservative-led county. This investigation has resulted in the fourth indictment against Trump. It is the most detailed of the criminal investigations against the former president. What’s more, it charges Trump and 18 co-defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law designed to target the mafia and other criminal groups. By using this law against organized crime, Willis equates the former president with a mob boss.
Throughout the investigation, Willis, 52, has been criticized for exceeding her powers, as well as threatened and insulted. Trump has called her a “lunatic Marxist,” a “racist” and a “phony.” He has also claimed — without proof — that she has ties to gangsters. Security measures have been taken to protect Willis due to the threats.
The case against Trump — the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election — is the biggest case Willis has handled, but it is not the first time she has investigated a high-profile figure. She is also in the middle of a probe into the rapper Young Thug and the hip-hop group Drug Rich Gang.
Willis, who is a divorced mother of two and a Democrat, says that she is motivated by her passion for justice. “My career has taught me, no matter the political pressure, just do what’s right,” she said when she took office. Willis also said that she is not swayed by whether a defendant is influential or not. “What I could envision is that we actually live in a society where Lady Justice is blind, and that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, Black, white, Democrat or Republican. If you violated the law, you’re going to be charged,” she told CNN in 2022.
Strict, meticulous and a workaholic
Sources close to Willis describe her as strict, meticulous and a workaholic. She is described as an ambitious lawyer, who prepares her cases thoroughly, and has little tolerance for failure. Willis is said to be just as good at connecting with jurors, witnesses, and police officers as she is at lashing out at those she believes are blocking her investigations. Her critics reproach her for her frequent press conferences, but she has replied that transparency is one of the requirements of her position.
Interest in law runs in her family. Willis was born in California, but grew up in Washington. Her father was a lawyer and, according to her, a member of the leftist Black Panthers, who he frequently represented in court. She says that at the age of eight, she was already working as a file clerk.
Willis studied at Howard University in Washington and then at Emory University Law School in Atlanta, where she would eventually settle. After a few years in the private sector, she began working at the Fulton District Attorney’s Office as an Associate Counsel in 2001. In 2020, she defeated the incumbent district attorney and her former mentor, Paul Howard, in a fiercely contested primary.
One of her specialties is RICO, which was designed to help fight gangs and the mafia. As district attorney, Willis has applied it in many cases. “She’s really a tough-on-crime liberal, which is kind of a rare bird these days, but I think that’s her brand,” Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis told AP.
Willis’ critics say she abuses RICO and other organized crime laws because the anti-mob rules carry harsher penalties. Her detractors also argue that such practices lengthen the time defendants spend awaiting trial.
The more evidence, the better
Willis’ supporters describe her as an exacting attorney, who would rather spend time completing a thorough investigation than hastily press charges and fail. She admits that she doesn’t like weak cases, and prefers to collect as much evidence as possible.
“The way she goes about any case, she starts at the top and she really dives into it. She follows every lead that she can,” Charlie Bailey, who previously worked with Willis in the Fulton County DA’s office, told CNN.
After indicting the former president and his co-defendants on Monday, Willis has given them until Friday, August 25 to appear in court and have the charges read to them. Willis has proposed a March 4 trial date, which, given Trump’s other upcoming trials and the looming 2024 presidential campaign, could be complicated.
Willis maintains that she will treat the former president like any other citizen. “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,” she told The New York Times in September last year.
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