Fulton DA mulling rarely used special grand jury for Trump probe

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, center, speaks to the press on Sept. 29, 2021 surrounded by a team of more than three dozen prosecutors and investigators at her office in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, center, speaks to the press on Sept. 29, 2021 surrounded by a team of more than three dozen prosecutors and investigators at her office in downtown Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Move would assemble dedicated group of 16 to 23 jurors to investigate

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is likely to impanel a special grand jury to support her probe of former President Donald Trump, a move that could aid prosecutors in what’s expected to be a complicated and drawn-out investigative process.

A person with direct knowledge of the discussions confirmed the development to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying the move could be imminent.

Some legal observers viewed the news, first reported by the New York Times, as a sign that the probe is entering a new phase.

“My interpretation is that she’s gotten as far as she can interviewing witnesses and dealing with people who are cooperating by producing documents voluntarily,” former Gwinnett County DA Danny Porter said of Willis. “She needs the muscle. She needs the subpoena power.”

Special grand juries are rarely used but could be a valuable tool for Willis as she takes the unprecedented step of investigating the conduct of a former president while he was in office.

Her probe, launched in February, is centered on the Jan. 2 phone call Trump placed to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he urged the Republican to “find” the votes to reverse Joe Biden’s win in Georgia last November. The veteran prosecutor previously told Gov. Brian Kemp, Raffensperger and other state officials that her office would be probing potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, intentional interference with the performance of election duties, conspiracy and racketeering, among others.

The investigation could also include Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who promoted lies about election fraud in a state legislative hearing; and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was accused by Raffensperger of urging him to toss mail-in ballots in certain counties. Both men have denied wrongdoing.

The main benefits a special grand jury would provide are continuity and focus, former prosecutors said.

A regular Fulton County grand jury is seated for two months. Jurors typically hear hundreds of felony cases before their service ends.

But a special grand jury, which typically has 16 to 23 members, is focused on a single case and remains active for as long as prosecutors need. That could be beneficial given how complicated the issue of investigating a former president is.

Prosecutors will be able to save time not having to send out new jury summons or present the case from scratch every two months to get new jurors up to speed, according to veteran prosecutors.

“In complex matters it helps to not have to reacclimate a new set of grand jurors,” said Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, previously a DeKalb County DA. She co-authored a Brookings Institution report earlier this fall that analyzed all available public evidence and concluded that Trump’s conduct leaves him at “substantial risk of possible state charges predicated on multiple crimes.”

Like a regular grand jury, special grand juries can subpoena witnesses, compel the production of documents, inspect and enter into certain offices for the purposes of the investigation. But they can’t issue indictments. In order to secure one, prosecutors would need to present evidence to a regularly impaneled grand jury.

The DA’s office, a superior court chief judge or local elected official can request a special grand jury. The request must be approved by a majority of the county’s superior court judges.

Melissa Redmon, a former Fulton County deputy DA, noted the backlog some 11,000 criminal cases that Fulton’s two other grand juries are currently working their way through.

“Especially when you think about the backlog created by COVID… the main advantage of having a special grand jury is that they could be focused on just this investigation,” said Redmon, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Georgia’s law school.

Should the case move ahead, many legal observers are expecting Trump to fight every request made by prosecutors, which could drag out the investigative process for months.

“The defense is going to try to stonewall this at every turn, so she needs people there on a continuous, on-call basis,” Porter said of Willis. During his tenure as Gwinnett DA, Porter was at the center of a case that tested the power of special grand juries in 2012 that involved former county Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who was accused of accepting or agreeing to accept $1 million in bribes from a developer and charged with two counts of failing to disclose a financial interest in properties he voted to rezone.

A spokesman for the Fulton DA’s office declined to comment on the prospect of a special grand jury or provide details about the status of the probe.

“All relevant information, whether gathered by our office, another investigative body or made public by witnesses themselves, is part of the ongoing investigation,” spokesman Jeff DiSantis said.

Willis’ office has interviewed at least four of Raffensperger’s closest aides, though not Raffensperger, who recently detailed his phone call with Trump in his new book and would presumably be a star witness in the criminal case if it were to move forward.

Prosecutors are also in touch with the congressional committee probing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol to share documents that could be useful to the state investigation.

Trump’s advisers have dismissed the investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

When pressed about the probe during a recent interview with the AJC, Willis stayed mum about her plans.

“That’s just an ongoing investigation,” she said. “That’s all I got for you.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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