She’s taken on gangs, violent rap lyrics and cheating teachers. Her father was a criminal defense lawyer and erstwhile Black Panther. Her name is Swahili and means prosperous. And she shattered a glass ceiling when she became the first female district attorney in Georgia’s most populous county.
But for many, Fani (FAW-nee) Willis, 51, is best known for her pursuit of one person — former president Donald Trump.
Willis was sworn in as Fulton County’s top prosecutor on Jan. 1, 2021, as Trump pushed aggressively to reverse the election results in Georgia and other swing states he narrowly lost.
Willis was raised by her father, John Clifford Floyd III, in California and Washington, D.C. She caught the legal bug while tagging along to court on weekend mornings as Floyd defended his clients accused of public intoxication and other late-night debauchery. Willis graduated from Howard University and moved to Atlanta in 1993 to attend Emory, where she obtained her law degree.
Read some of our previous work about Willis, whom her colleagues simply call “madam,” here, here and here.
Here’s what else you should know about the DA and her background:
Willis defeated her former boss
Willis spent the majority of her career as a Fulton prosecutor. The single mother of two adult daughters rose through the ranks, prosecuting homicide and sexual assault cases and managing the complex trial division before leaving in 2018 to make an unsuccessful run for Fulton Superior Court. After a short stint in private practice and working as chief magistrate judge in South Fulton, Willis announced her plans to challenge her onetime boss, Paul Howard, who after six terms in office was weighed down with sexual harassment and discrimination complaints, as well as financial corruption allegations. Willis ran as a middle-of-the-road candidate while making Howard’s conduct central to her campaign. She cruised to victory in the Democratic primary runoff with 72 percent of the vote, winning all but a handful of precincts, and ran unopposed in the November general election. She is up for re-election in 2024.
Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
She’s known for her use of racketeering laws
Before she was elected, Willis was perhaps best known for her work as the lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating case. The DA’s office famously, and controversially, used Georgia’s relatively broad racketeering law to argue that APS was a criminal enterprise that for years harmed thousands of academically struggling students, most of them children of color. Willis and her colleagues were able to secure convictions for 11 educators. As DA, Willis pursued racketeering indictments against more than two-dozen people affiliated with the alleged street gang Young Slime Life, including award-winning rapper Young Thug. She’s also indicated she could use RICO against Trump and his allies for their actions following the 2020 election in Georgia. “I’m a fan of RICO,” Willis said last year. “RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office in law enforcement to tell the whole story.”
She began investigating Trump within weeks of entering office
Willis didn’t campaign on investigating the former president. But she felt like she couldn’t ignore matters when audio from a conversation between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger leaked during the first weekend of January 2021. During that call, Trump told Raffensperger to “find” exactly enough votes to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow win in Georgia. A month later, Willis announced she launched a criminal investigation into the matter and was closely eyeing a half-dozen state laws that might have been broken, including statutes barring solicitation to commit election fraud and conspiracy. “Once you learn information that a crime may have happened in your jurisdiction, whatever the crime is, you don’t have a right to decide if you are going to investigate it,” she later told the AJC. “It becomes your duty.”
Willis is juggling competing priorities
Even though the Trump investigation has garnered the lion’s share of the headlines, it’s far from the only problem the DA’s office is juggling. There’s the YSL trial, for which jury selection has dragged on for months. Critics have slammed Willis for her office’s relatively slow pace of indicting felony cases in the wake of a pandemic-induced court backlog. The latter has contributed to massive overcrowding at the Fulton County jail, which had previously been overflowing with inmates.(A recent ACLU study found that nearly half of detainees had not been formally charged with a crime.) Willis’ office has said it’s moving as quickly as possible to work through the backlog it inherited. Fulton, like the counties encompassing other major cities, has also had to contend with its own increase in violent crime in recent years.