OPINION: DA Fani Willis’ Trump journey is part of a prosecutor’s dilemma

Protesters at the Fulton County Jail waiting for Trump’s arrival in Atlanta on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick/katelyn.myrick@ajc.com)

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Protesters at the Fulton County Jail waiting for Trump’s arrival in Atlanta on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick/katelyn.myrick@ajc.com)

When Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indicted Donald Trump, there was an immediate backlash. But not all from the usual suspects.

Many in the Stop Cop City crowd, a decidedly lefty coalition, immediately fired away at the veteran prosecutor, who is now a household name.

“Fani Willis has destroyed hundreds of Black Atlantans’ lives,” Twittered one commenter (punctuation added and ALL CAPS removed.)

She “is also responsible for using RICO charges to send mostly Black educators to prison,” wrote another.

And one attorney said, “The number of defense attorneys cheering for an indictment is depressing. Especially local attorneys that know this is from an office quick to abuse power, overreach and overcharge.”

The right, as expected, also came hard at Willis, who was elected in 2020. The “radical left lunatic” has waged a “witch hunt” to make a name for herself, Trump said, as his minions nodded vociferously.

By doing so, she has allowed criminals to roam free and unbothered, turning Atlanta into a crime-ridden hellscape, they say. (Actually, violent crime is down 23% in Atlanta this year.)

The hellscape that is Atlanta under Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis, as seen by Donald Trump.

Credit: Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg

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Credit: Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg

Trump toady Jim Jordan, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is calling for an investigation into Willis’ investigation. And our Georgia pols are similarly chiming in.

State Sen. Clint Dixon said he will ask the newly created Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission (PAQC) to “investigate and take action against Fani Willis and her efforts that weaponize the justice system against political opponents.”

The DA, he insists, has an “unabashed goal to become some sort of leftist celebrity.”

Conversely, one would assume her RICO case against rapper Young Thug and his alleged gang associates would demonstrate her unabashed goal to be some sort of rightwing celebrity.

The PAQC was created this year by Republican legislators in the wake of numerous Dem DAs coming to office in 2020. That occurred because demographic change in some communities, as well as the George Floyd social justice protests, which called for policing reform.

Willis, a hard-nosed prosecutor, was elected that year, beating longtime DA Paul Howard, her former boss.

The Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission was created this year to sanction or even remove prosecutors for ethical violations or not properly doing their job. By that, I mean “woke” prosecutors who don’t go fire-and-brimstone on criminal defendants.

A chief target was Athens-Clarke County DA Deborah Gonzalez, Class of 2020. She vowed not to prosecute certain minor drug crimes and planned other reforms. She’s been criticized by judges, cops and residents, including Gov. Brian Kemp, an Athens product.

She calls her efforts “smart.” Critics call them “soft.”

Some saw the law targeted at Willis for going after Trump. Earlier this year, Willis told senators the proposed law (later passed along partisan lines) was “racist,” pointing out the number of minority district attorneys in Georgia increased from five to 14 in 2020.

In 2020, it was the Democrats who sought to create a watchdog agency for prosecutors. It was to be modeled after the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates complaints of misconduct by judges.

Then-state Rep. Bob Trammell proposed the idea after then-DA Jackie Johnson was accused of skullduggery in not indicting the men who that year chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in Brunswick.

Since the bill was proposed by Dems, it died a quiet death, especially after a vast majority of the state’s DAs, of both political persuasions, opposed it.

One of the handful of DAs to support Trammell’s proposal was Coweta Circuit DA Herb Cranford, a Republican. In a letter he wrote last year, he said a prosecutor would not be out of line if he or she kicked out every single case in a certain category of crime. But, he added, it must be done in a case-by-case basis, not by an edict.

The bill passed this year was opposed by a majority of the state’s 49 DAs. However, 21 of them, all Republicans, supported it, including Cranford. He has since been appointed to that oversite commission.

Athens District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez

Credit: File photo

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Credit: File photo

Four DAs, including DeKalb’s Sherry Boston, this month sued to thwart the new law, saying the “second-guessing” of their discretion in what cases they decide to prosecute is a threat to their independence.

I called former DeKalb DA Robert James and mentioned how Willis is getting it from both the right and left.

“That’s the plight of an elected prosecutor in a major metropolitan area,” he said. “Half say you’re too tough. The other half says you’re not doing enough.”

“The law says you’re to prosecute without fear, favor or affection,” James said. “To do your job the right way, you have to assume risk.”

He added that going after elected officials carries a big risk. James, who prosecuted former county CEO Burrell Ellis, got beat in 2016 by Boston. Ellis was sent to prison, but his conviction was vacated on appeal.

I noted that most Fulton residents won’t be too angry at the Trump prosecution.

But if Willis loses the case, then she’ll get a challenger, he said. James added that if I’m naïve enough to think she won’t, “then I have beachfront property in Nevada for you.”