Who is Fani Willis, the Fulton DA prosecuting Trump?

Surrounded by Fulton County law enforcement officials, District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference about the RICO indictment in the celebrity home invasion ring on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Surrounded by Fulton County law enforcement officials, District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a press conference about the RICO indictment in the celebrity home invasion ring on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com).

Editors’ note: This story was first published in August 2023. It has been updated with recent developments in the election interference case.

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, 52, 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.

Known for her intensity, Willis gained a reputation in the Fulton DA’s office for her skills as a trial attorney and ability to connect with jurors.

In recent months, Willis’ personal life has been in the spotlight after one of Trump’s codefendants accused her of reaping a financial benefit from a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the outside counsel she hired as special prosector in the election interference case. On the witness stand, Willis has pushed back hard against the allegations and said she did nothing wrong.

Read some of our previous work about Willis, 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 an assistant district attorney in Fulton County 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 this year.

Fulton prosecutor Fani Willis, center, and her colleagues confer during the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court on March 19, 2015. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)


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She’s known for her use of racketeering laws

Before she was elected DA, 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 twin racketeering indictments against more than two-dozen people affiliated with the alleged street gang Young Slime Life, including award-winning rapper Young Thug, and, separately, the rapper known as YFN Lucci as part of an indictment of twelve alleged members of the Bloods gang. “I’m a fan of RICO,” Willis said in 2022. “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 launched a criminal investigation into the matter and said she 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. The YSL trial, which began on Jan. 4, 2023, has become the longest trial in Georgia history. Jury selection alone took 10 months, and since testimony began it has been plagued with delays.

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. Willis’ office has said it’s moving as quickly as possible to work through the backlog it inherited. The DA has hit back against GOP critics in the state Senate who opened up an investigation of the jail. “It’s an extremely weak attempt to add a slap at this office,” she told the AJC late last year. “And, you know, it’s just politics. They worry the hero (Trump) is treated the same as everybody else. And now they want to come up with foolishness.”

Since entering office, Willis has prioritized shifting the culture of the DA’s office, from who it hires to its relationship with law enforcement and how it interacts with the community. An accomplishment she often cites is a year-round outreach program designed to keep kids out of gangs.

‘The salaciousness’

The relationship accusations against Willis, which emerged in early January 2024, have trained a harsh spotlight on the DA. Willis, who is divorced, had occasionally joked about the difficulty of dating while serving as a high-ranking law enforcement official. But little was known about her private life, in part, because of security precautions put in place after she received violent and racist threats from supporters of Trump and rappers indicted in her gang-related RICO cases. In a new book “Find Me the Votes,” authors Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman reported that on the night she announced the indictment against Trump, Willis left the courthouse in a disguise and tapped an aide to serve as a body double because of death threats.

During two hours on the witness stand in February, Willis was fiery, cutting, defiant and sometimes even funny as she answered questions from defense attorneys who accused her of having a conflict of interest. She revealed that her father taught her to always keep some cash on hand, that her drink of choice is Grey Goose vodka and that her 50th birthday in 2021 was a “very lonely period in my life.” She accused defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant of dwelling in “the salaciousness” of the claims against her to detract attention from Trump and his followers and their attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

“You think I’m on trial,” Willis told Merchant. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”