OPINION: Fani Willis wants you to know: “We’re in a crisis”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference in the District Attorney's office at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta, Monday, August 30, 2021. The press conference took place following Robert Aaron Long's appearance in front of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference in the District Attorney's office at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta, Monday, August 30, 2021. The press conference took place following Robert Aaron Long's appearance in front of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

The last time District Attorney Fani Willis testified before the Fulton County Commission, she had a dire warning for commissioners: “None of your constituents are safe,” she said, describing the random, violent murders that have occurred in every one of their districts over the last year.

Willis had been on the job for just over six months by the time she testified at the July 14th hearing. Although she’s made national headlines investigating Donald Trump for election interference, her primary focus as the county’s top prosecutor is to get convictions for every violent crime and felony committed from Buckhead to Bankhead, as politicians like to say. Rapes, murders, gangs, drugs, all of them come through Willis’ Forsyth Street office downtown.

She arrived for her first day leading the office where she once worked as a deputy DA to find a crippling backlog of unfinished cases left behind by her predecessor, Paul Howard.

Tens of thousands of cases were still open for various reasons. Eleven thousand were indicted, but not reserved; 6,000 more had no charges at all.

On top of the existing backlog, Fulton County’s courts had slowed to a crawl during COVID, even as violent crime intensified and sent more accused criminals for the overwhelmed courts to deal with.

Most concerning of all, Willis warned, was a group of accused murderers and rapists, about to be released onto the streets of Fulton County.

A looming deadline required that unindicted suspects be charged or released on bond by Monday of this week, even though Willis told the commission her office lacked the lawyers to plow through the cases and to get to them all.

“People act like I’m talking about library books,” she said. “I’m talking about lives.”

I sat down with Willis this week to see if she had ever gotten the resources she asked for from the commission. And what happened to the accused murders and violent offenders she warned would be released Monday?

First the violent offenders. Willis said Chief Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher has extended the deadline one last time, giving her until Sept. 28 to formally indict the suspects or release them.

With 25 lawyers working nights and weekends on what Willis calls “the murder project,” she said her staff should be able to work through the 61 remaining homicide cases, including one for 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie’s suspected killers, ahead of the new deadline.

But an additional 500 non-homicide cases likely won’t be resolved in time.

Willis said a two-month delay of COVID-related federal funds will push her office too close to the new September deadline to process them all. The $75 million influx to Fulton County’s court system was dubbed “Orca” for the county to wade through the whale-sized backlog that exists.

The additional funding will help, she said. But it’s temporary and not enough for the long haul.

“We’re in a crisis and we need to stop pretending like we’re not in a crisis,” she said.

But it’s more than the DA’s office. The entire criminal justice system in Fulton County seems pushed to its breaking point.

In interviews, commissioners talked about too few courtrooms for too few judges. Too few clerks to process too many cases.

DA’s around the state are struggling to get ballistics results for evidence in time for indictments. Willis has resorted to using her own office funds for ballistics reports because the GBI Crime Lab cannot process them fast enough for her prosecutions.

The county jail is dangerously overcrowded. The sheriff’s cars are breaking down.

“We need funding around here,” she said. “We have to recognize that we are a major metropolitan community, and this is not OK.”

The next meeting of the commission is Wednesday when Willis plans to make her case for about $5 million in additional funding to expand the DA’s permanent staff for the first time since 2002 and add office space for them to work in.

“If the public expects me to do my job, my ask of the public is that they make sure these county commissioners know that this is a priority for them and they want to make sure this office is appropriately funded,” she said.

But it’s not entirely clear that she’ll get what she wants.

Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. said he supports Willis and will vote to approve the money she’s asking for.

But Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents Johns Creek and portions of North Fulton, said the commission and Willis share the same goal of reducing crime. But some of the requests Willis has made, like directly hiring lawyers outside of the H.R.. department’s process, “really aren’t doable.”

“The bottom line is we have to work together and the confrontational nature between us is not productive, and it’s not going to get us where we need to be,” she said.

Commissioner Bob Ellis covers the northwest portion of the county, including Milton.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of things that are going on and say, ‘Let’s throw money at something, it may have an impact,’” he said of previous efforts to deal with issues in the county. “But in many cases, it is not well thought out and it has no impact.”

Ellis said he’ll listen to Willis’s argument for specific funding and go from there.

Willis is notified of every serious crime in the county when it happens, which is frequent. She knows the details of rapes and human trafficking nobody wants to know. She talks to the mothers of murder victims as cases move forward. Or stall out.

When I asked if she sleeps well at night these days, she said she does not. What keeps her awake? I asked.

“Honestly, these arguments with the County Commission,” she said.

Before I left, I wanted to know if she thinks commissioners’ constituents are still unsafe going about their lives in Fulton County, as she warned in July.

“Yes,” she said. “You can put that in bold.”

Update: At Wednesday’s hearing of the Fulton County Commission, Willis made one final plea. According to the AJC’s Ben Brasch, who covered the hearing, Willis told commissioners, “It’s just math. I need help. I’m here begging you for help. Dangerous people are going to get out. I don’t know how to make it more clear.”

The commission voted to give Willis the full amount of the additional funding she requested.

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