Fulton DA faces local friction for decision to probe Trump

Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

As newly elected Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis launches a wide-ranging investigation into possible election fraud by former President Donald Trump, some of her constituents worry that the nationally watched probe will distract her attention from pressing local issues such as crime and corruption.

Even some Fulton County residents and leaders who would love nothing more than to see Trump face criminal charges question whether it’s wise for the veteran prosecutor to dedicate the enormous time, energy and political capital required to bring charges against a former president.

“I need my district attorney to be as motivated to prosecute renegade police as she is to go after a renegade ex-president who is 600 miles away,” said Khalid Kamau, a South Fulton city councilman who said county prosecutors have a “record of passing the buck” when it’s time to make politically difficult decisions.

More: New Fulton DA balances Trump probe, massive local workload

While the investigation was welcomed by some national Democrats — and hammered by Trump allies — it comes as Willis grapples with another controversial local decision: her so-far unsuccessful attempts to recuse the office from prosecuting cases against eight current and former Atlanta police officers, including two involved in the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks.

Attorney Chris Stewart, who represents the family of Brooks, said Willis shouldn’t lose sight of what’s unfolded in her backyard — namely the still-pending case against former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, charged with fatally shooting Brooks in June.

“All we want is the same attention and energy towards what happens locally here in Fulton County as we do in going after the former presidents,” Stewart said.

  L. Chris Stewart, who represents the familie of Rayshard Brooks talks at a press conference called by nearly two dozen attorneys who are currently suing the city of Atlanta on behalf of victims of police brutality on the steps of City Hall Monday, October 26, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Caption
L. Chris Stewart, who represents the familie of Rayshard Brooks talks at a press conference called by nearly two dozen attorneys who are currently suing the city of Atlanta on behalf of victims of police brutality on the steps of City Hall Monday, October 26, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Vince Champion, Southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which endorsed Willis, shares Stewart’s concern. He’d prefer to see long-delayed use-of-force investigations against Atlanta cops resolved ahead of any possible prosecution of the former commander-in-chief, though the union takes no position on the Trump probe.

“We all know the one with President Trump is going to take a long time and probably a lot of resources and we would hope we can get some of these other (cases) that are really more relevant locally out of the way,” Champion said.

Many other officials and activists in Fulton County say there’s no reason she can’t juggle local cases with the Trump investigation. They point to comments from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, who declared Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the insurrection and encouraged prosecutors to launch criminal investigations.

“She was hired to deal with criminal acts that happen in her jurisdiction. Period,” said Benny Crane, a community activist in South Fulton. “And she has to follow the evidence where it leads her, no matter who it is. Whether it’s the minions, the governor or the president of the United States.”

If a prosecution moves forward, Trump could hardly find a less friendly venue in Georgia. He won only about one-fourth of Fulton County’s votes in November, and Trump’s allies call it a continuation of a “witch hunt” in deeply Democratic territory. Some Republicans are seeking ways to prevent local prosecutors from pursuing similar inquests in the future.

About two dozen Georgia Senate Republicans introduced a long-shot measure the day after Willis’ launched her criminal probe to require a statewide grand jury for any charge involving elections.

If it’s adopted, which is unlikely, it would mean that local prosecutors would have to empanel a grand jury from beyond their territories, drawing more residents from rural, conservative corners of the state.

“Creating a statewide grand jury focuses on election and voting crimes,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “It makes investigation and prosecution more efficient. And it’s an important step to restoring confidence that every legal vote should count — and only legal votes.”

PROSECUTION TEAM SPEAKS--APRIL 14, 2015 ATLANTA Fulton County prosecutors Fani Willis and Clint Rucker speak as DA Paul Howard (left) and Dr. Bernice King listen, during a press conference following sentencing for 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)
Caption
PROSECUTION TEAM SPEAKS--APRIL 14, 2015 ATLANTA Fulton County prosecutors Fani Willis and Clint Rucker speak as DA Paul Howard (left) and Dr. Bernice King listen, during a press conference following sentencing for 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Willis took office promising a full overhaul — of office culture, policies and courtroom performance. She’s welcomed the return of many former prosecutors who felt constrained by her predecessor, Paul Howard. And she vowed to get tough on violent offenders after Atlanta endured a dramatic increase in homicides last year.

“I don’t want people to think any longer that Fulton County is a place where they can commit crime and get away with it,” Willis said.

Her supporters say she must ready herself to navigate a tricky balance.

Former Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said the new DA can’t lose focus on local crimes but also has the duty to investigate Trump’s “disregard for civil and lawful behavior.” And Eric Teusink, an Atlanta attorney, said he’s confident Willis has the resources to pursue the Trump investigation without sidelining other cases.

“She can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “She’s taking on a lot early on, but she didn’t ask for this to be placed in her lap.”