After historic victory, Fani Willis plans transformation of Fulton DA’s office

08/12/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - Newly elected Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis talks about her victory over her former boss, outgoing Fulton County District Attorney Paul D. Howard, at her private practice office in Atlanta, Wednesday, August 12, 2020. Willis will be the first woman to serve as district attorney in Fulton County. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
08/12/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - Newly elected Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis talks about her victory over her former boss, outgoing Fulton County District Attorney Paul D. Howard, at her private practice office in Atlanta, Wednesday, August 12, 2020. Willis will be the first woman to serve as district attorney in Fulton County. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

It was 2 a.m. Fresh off one of the best nights of her life, triumphant in her bid to unseat Fulton County’s longtime district attorney, Fani Willis returned to her South Fulton home for one last celebration.

She found her elderly father, who recently moved in with Willis, sipping on a Jack Daniels.

“He said his nerves had been frayed for week,” she said. “I never knew my father was just internally suffering watching this race.”

It’s not easy for a former Black Panther to hear what was being said about his daughter. Willis’ opponent, six-term incumbent Paul Howard, suggested she had a made a deal with the Atlanta police union not to prosecute any police officer in exchange for their endorsement. She was accused of being a tool of the white establishment, of being a Republican posing as a Democrat.

“It got very nasty,” said Willis, who said detractors hurled racially charged slurs at her. “About three weeks ago before the election, I came to a peace about it.”

It helped that internal polling showed the attacks weren’t working. She said she felt confident she’d she’d win, figuring she’d get 60 percent of the vote. She ended up with 72 percent, nearly tripling her former boss’ vote total. It was a stunning landslide, with Willis winning all but a handful of precincts.

“You just don’t see incumbents losing that big in a primary,” said Democrat strategist Howard Franklin. With no Republican opposition, Willis is poised to become Fulton County’s first female district attorney in January.

The Howard University graduate fought back tears as she began her victory speech on the porch of a Midtown law office, which doubled as campaign headquarters. She was surrounded by her two college-age daughters who, Willis said, initially didn’t want her to enter the DA’s race.

“My daughters do not like the attacks on their mother,” she later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They’ll get into it on social media.”

But on this night, they were all smiles.

“Y’all, we made herstory,” she said to the loudest applause of the evening.

‘I am who I say I am'

Despite her historic victory, some voters still view Willis with suspicion.

Atlanta attorney Jonathan Rapping, a leader in the legal reform movement, said he could not support Willis given her role in leading the prosecution of 12 Atlanta Public School teachers accused of correcting standardized test answers by their students. All but one of the defendants was found guilty of racketeering.

“I personally couldn’t vote for someone who can’t acknowledge these (teachers) shouldn’t be locked up,” Rapping said. “These are the kind of stands that get people voted out of office.”

Rapping supported Howard – reluctantly, he said – after the 68-year-old DA tried to broker a deal for the educators that would have allowed them to escape prison time.

Willis refused to be a part of any such deal unless the teachers apologized for harming the schoolchildren and admitted their guilt.

“She got a ton of pressure from people to renounce the endorsements by the police union and Mary Norwood,” said Jeff DiSantis, media consultant for the Willis campaign. Norwood, a political Independent, is a two-time mayoral candidate and chairman of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.

Willis stood firm.

“It was a pro move,” DiSantis said.

Addressing her skeptics, Willis asked they reserve judgement.

“Sit back and watch,” she said. ”The best thing about me is I am who I say I am. The worst thing about me is I am who I say I am.”

Team of rivals

Willis seized the middle ground in the DA’s campaign, helping her garner overwhelming, countywide support. An election map generated by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office illustrated her precinct wins in teal and Howard’s in blue. The county was rendered after all votes came in as a sea of teal with a few flecks of blue. (A handful of tan precincts indicated a tie.)

I want legally conservative minds and legally liberal,” Willis told the AJC. “Let’s sit around the table and hash it out and find the best way to serve the community. I want to rely on the wisdom of other people and their experiences to lead the office.”

She said she has a “conservative side,” one that separates her from the new wave of prosecutors like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kim Foxx in Chicago.

“Some prosecutors don’t believe jail should exist,” Willis said. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t like violent crime. I’ve walked over enough dead bodies to knows you have to have prisons.

“On the other end of the spectrum, you have these people who think everyone should go to jail,” she said. “I don’t think that. I think we should have programs that restore people. I’m not extreme on this liberal side. I’m not extreme on this conservative side. I come at these issues just right.”

Stanford University law professor David Alan Sklansky, who studies district attorneys, said Willis’ proposals are in line with more reform-minded prosecutors.

“She’s talking about pre-indictment diversion and post-diversion indictment programs and accountability courts instead of jail,” Sklansky said. “That’s all part of the new normal for prosecutors.”

Willis promises a thorough review of the charges brought by Howard against Garrett Rolfe, the former Atlanta police officer who, on June 12, shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks at a downtown Wendy’s.

The case became a centerpiece of Howard’s campaign, who attempted a massive pivot by attempting to cast himself as a crusader against police use of force.

“Suddenly, at the 11th hour, here’s Paul Howard running as the people’s candidate,” Franklin said.

Willis said the swiftness of the decision to charge Rolfe with felony murder and other crimes, reached before the GBI had completed its investigation, reeked of politics. She noted that Howard had 43 other unresolved officer shooting cases on his desk, some dating as far back as 2016.

“I have some concerns (the case) is not going to remain in this office,” Willis said. “Venue may be snatched altogether.”

“I’m going to look at the investigation that investigators with the DA’s office conducted I’m going to look at GBI investigation and finally I’ll have my staff conduct an investigation that looks at both of them,” Willis said. “If its appropriate to charge, we’ll charge. If not, we won’t.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, meanwhile, recently requested the GBI widen its investigation into Howard to determine whether grand jury subpoenas for information about Rolfe were legally issued.

Willis said it’s clear they were not. She announced she intends to clean house in the Public Integrity Unit, which handles police-involved shootings.

“None of those lawyers will be working in that unit,” she said. “None of them. When I find out you’re issuing illegal subpoenas, that you know can harm the case ... I have good information it wasn’t just that case. The evidence is all compromised. It’s horrible.”

Tarnished legacy?

Willis said she plans a dramatic transformation, changing everything from the process for charging suspects to office assignments for prosecutors. If she has her way all vestiges of Howard’s rule will be erased.

But his legacy can’t be ignored. Howard was the first African-American ever elected as a district attorney in Georgia. He presided over a 70 percent drop in crime over his six terms while cutting the jail population in half.

“I’m going to continue to do everything in my power to make sure we continue to have one of the safest places in the country,” Howard said in conceding the race to Willis. “I can’t say we have any regrets about the work we’ve done.”

Howard, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, will also be remembered as a polarizing figure, routinely sparring with Fulton judges and Atlanta police.

“He wasn’t reasonable,” said retired judge Marvin Arrington Sr. “If you defeated him he’d become mean and vindictive. He couldn’t stand to lose, and he took it personally.”

Franklin said Howard’s career will be defined by what’s yet to happen. The GBI is said to be wrapping up its investigation into Howard’s handling of the Rolfe case. And a trio of sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits filed against him have yet to be resolved.

“If he ends up in front of a judge answering charges against him that’s what he’ll be remembered for,” Franklin said.

Willis, asked to reflect on her old boss’ legacy, said he made her a better lawyer.

“I don’t want to see anything bad happen,” she said. “Not a thing. I had a lot of deference to him, you understand. I had a lot of pride working for the first Black DA in Fulton County. I hate seeing him go out like this.”

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