Fulton DA keeps eye on serious local issues as Trump case begins

Fulton County District Attorney Fanni Wills listens to Judge Robert McBurney talk to the jurors at Fulton County Court during the selection of the special grand jury to investigate allegations that former President Donald Trump criminally interfered with Georgia’s elections in 2020. Monday, May 2, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Fulton County District Attorney Fanni Wills listens to Judge Robert McBurney talk to the jurors at Fulton County Court during the selection of the special grand jury to investigate allegations that former President Donald Trump criminally interfered with Georgia’s elections in 2020. Monday, May 2, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Six months after Fani Willis began investigating former President Donald Trump for allegedly trying to overturn Georgia’s election, she was pounding on a lectern and talking through her teeth about a completely different issue.

Willis was pleading with the Fulton County Commission to give her more money so she could begin whittling away at an unprecedented and pandemic-fueled court backlog that included dozens of people accused in homicides.

Willis ripped into a bureaucracy that she said has hampered her since she became district attorney in 2020. Then she displayed pictures of individual homicide victims: “Each (pound). Represents (pound). A. Life (pound pound). From (pound). Your (pound). District (pound).”

“Each of them,” she exclaimed, with a shaking fist.

That was July 2021 — half a year after Trump tried to pressure state officials to flip the state in his electoral favor. Willis empaneled a special grand jury last month to investigate whether Trump and others actions were illegal.

That investigative body, which will ultimately recommend to Willis whether her office should pursue criminal prosecution of the former president, began hearing from witnesses Thursday.

The first witness? Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who in January 2021 fielded an hour-long conference call from Trump during which the president asked him to “find” enough votes to turn the election in the president’s favor.

But the district attorney’s plate was full before Trump made that phone call.

Willis was elected with an enormous 70% of the vote — a clear mandate to run her office differently than six-time incumbent Paul Howard, who was accused of using cases to play politics.

Now Willis, a Democrat and first Black woman to hold the position, says it could take up to a decade to resolve the case backlog while the county is on pace for yet another year of a record number of homicides.

She also has to mend relationships with the law enforcement community, which felt persecuted by Howard for political reasons, and help new Sheriff Patrick Labat reduce he number of inmates in Fulton’s over-capacity jail.

Labat stood by Willis’ side that day in front of the county commission, imploring the commission for more money.

Some people question Willis’ motives in pursuing the Trump probe. Isn’t she too busy? Isn’t it too expensive? Isn’t it too political?

Not for Willis.

“I tell my team, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” Willis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during an April interview in her office.

Some say Willis pursuing the Trump case is a waste.

“It’s just not a good use of resources,” said Don Samuel, a veteran defense attorney who has been hired to represent members of the Georgia General Assembly should they be subpoenaed by the special grand jury. “And no judge in Fulton County’s gonna send him to jail. That’s not gonna happen.

“No way Donald Trump’s gonna end up in Reidsville.”

Hundreds of people wait in Fulton’s jail for their day in court because the courts shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. Fulton officials plan to run night court for years to get their heads above the cresting waters of a judicial backlog.

And if Fulton does indict Trump? It’s going to take resources Samuel said he doubts the state will provide.

Fulton County DA Fani Willis discusses her timeline to call witnesses for alleged Donald Trump 2020 election tampering. Video by Ryon Horne/AJC

Fulton Commissioner Chair Robb Pitts said Willis has not asked for any additional funding to run the special grand jury investigation. Willis said her hand is forced.

“I don’t have the right to just look the other way,” Willis said.

To that, Samuel says: “There are too many people who need the criminal justice system. And this notion that nobody’s above the law? Fine. There’s nobody below the law either. And all these people out there waiting for their turn to come to court are gonna be sacrificed for some political end, which achieves nothing.”

Willis said she hears the critics and regular citizens worried about rising crime, but the Trump case is a must.

“I definitely respect their desire to have violent crime looked at and they can understand that that is my number one and first priority, but we also have to do this investigation,” she said.

‘A prosecutor’s prosecutor’

Willis oversees a massive team of more than 360 prosecutors, investigators and legal assistants that act as a system of checks and balances. But ultimately, it is Willis who decides which cases to pursue and which are subject to capital punishment.

Ask Willis about her proudest moment since becoming DA and she cites decidedly unsexy things: improving staff morale, recruiting new employees, making and establishing a repeat offender tracking unit in partnership with the Fulton sheriff and Atlanta Police Foundation.

Fulton County District Attorney Fanni Wills look over the jurors at the beginning of the selection of the special grand jury to investigate allegations that former President Donald Trump criminally interfered with Georgia’s elections in 2020. Monday, May 2, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

One of the main promises Willis made on the campaign was to repair relationships with law enforcement. Her predecessor and former boss, Howard, was accused of putting cops who killed Rayshard Brooks in jail as a political stunt just before the election Willis won.

“The morale was just garbage, like just in the toilet, when I got here,” Willis said. So she started a kickball league with police departments, complete with a pep squad.

Sheriff Labat said Willis has helped fix relationships, which he said was needed because conflicting personalities between the former district attorney, the former Atlanta police chief and the former sheriff made it tougher to do their jobs.

“You had past situations where (they) couldn’t sit in the same room,” Labat said.

 Fulton County Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat speaks at a press conference at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Steve Schaefer / Steve.Schaefer@ajc.com

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Cooperation is needed now, because Labat knows the court backlog is only worsening the situation at his jail, which was already overflowing with inmates.

Willis said it will take 10 years to prosecute tens of thousands of old cases, hundreds of which had reached their deadline in which inmates had to be officially charged or released when Willis made her plea to the county commission. But county officials in charge of the project say the $75 million budgeted through three years should be enough to catch up.

Willis said there were 50,000 cases when she entered office in January 2021. She assigned staff to process those old cases and said they were able to close more than 48,000. But that doesn’t include the backlog of 12,000 unindicted cases created by COVID-19, and what Willis says was mismanagement under Howard’s tenure.

Caren Morrison, an associate law professor at Georgia State University, said she’s been impressed with the DA’s ability to advocate for what her office needs.

“She does a good job of being a prosecutor’s prosecutor,” said Morrison, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York.

Willis hasn’t shied away from big-name cases.

She recently brought a 56-count state indictment naming 28 alleged associates of the Young Slime Life gang — including Grammy Award-winning 30-year-old rapper Young Thug, aka Jeffery Lamar Williams. Also indicted was fellow rapper Gunna, whose name is Sergio Giavanni Kitchens.

“It does not matter what your notoriety is, what your fame is, if you come to Fulton County, Georgia, and you commit crimes ... you are going to become a target and a focus of this district attorney’s office,” Willis said at a news conference.

But there are still people sitting in jail who wouldn’t be, if not for the backlog.

That’s why some think Willis should focus on clearing that backlog rather than devoting resources to chasing Trump. That includes families of victims who are waiting for justice.

People protest the way the death of 21-year-old Jimmy Atchison was handled by officials at a town hall hosted by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. EMILY HANEY / AJC file photo

Credit: Emily Haney / emily.haney@ajc.com

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Credit: Emily Haney / emily.haney@ajc.com

Tanya Miller, a defense attorney who worked with Willis in the Fulton DA’s office for seven years, represents the family of Jimmy Atchison — who was killed by an Atlanta police officer in early 2019. The case has yet to be presented to a grand jury.

“If a family is sitting around for three years-plus waiting for a decision to charge for a death that happened in this community at the hands of a police officer and you’re focusing on putting 10 lawyers on Donald Trump, for some people that’s going to be problematic and I think a lot of families are disturbed by that fact,” Miller said.

To Willis, bringing justice through a conviction is like a surgeon saving a patient. She pushes herself to win but acknowledges she’s not always going to succeed.

“I imagine when those patients pass on you, that you could sleep at night because you know you did everything you can,” Willis said. “That’s the way I look at the practice of law. I do everything I can. And you know, some days you need a shot of vodka, but you can sleep at night.”

Fulton County DA Fanni Willis sat down with the AJC to talk about her office's investigation into Trump. Video by Ryon Horne/AJC