Your questions answered: What to expect in the Fulton Trump probe

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

A Fulton County judge this past week released portions of a highly anticipated final report of the special purpose grand jury, which spent nearly eight months examining whether former President Donald Trump or his allies illegally interfered in Georgia’s 2020 election.

While the short excerpts contained no bombshells, their release fuels public anticipation for the full document’s eventual disclosure. That version is expected to include jurors’ recommendations for who should be indicted and could potentially reveal which witnesses might have lied under oath.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked readers to share their most burning questions about what might be coming:

Who wrote the report?

Members of the special grand jury, which had 23 members and three alternates. It met from May to January and was composed of residents of Fulton County. For information to be included in the final report, a majority of jurors had to agree. It’s also possible that members of the district attorney’s office helped with the writing of the report, though the document states that prosecutors “had nothing to do with the recommendations contained herein.”

Why is most of the report being kept under wraps, and when can we expect its release?

Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who has been overseeing the special grand jury, ordered much of the document to remain under seal in order to preserve the due process rights of potential future defendants in the case. McBurney noted that the grand jury process does not allow people to present evidence in their own defense or rebut what other witnesses have said about them. He called the probe a “one-sided exploration” and said “fundamental fairness” requires most of it to be kept under wraps, for now.

The full version of the report is expected to be released after Fulton County DA Fani Willis makes charging decisions, which could take weeks or longer.

How much pull does the special grand jury have with Willis?

Whatever the special grand jury’s recommendations may be, it’s ultimately up to Willis to decide whether she wants to pursue any indictments. She has full discretion to seek charges against every person named by the grand jury, some of them or none of them. She could also pursue indictments for people not named in the final report. That said, sticking with the special grand jury’s recommendations would give Willis political cover.

If Willis wants to indict anyone as a result of this investigation, how would she go about that?

She would present the case before a regularly seated grand jury. There are two now in operation until the end of February that meet twice a week. Two more will start up in March for two-month terms.

Unlike the special grand jury, which was focused on just the elections inquiry, regular grand juries hear dozens of cases on any given day, from arson to murder. Willis would presumably re-present some evidence and testimony heard by the special grand jury and perhaps use portions of the special grand jury’s final report to bolster her argument.

When could we see potential indictments?

It could happen within days, weeks, months or longer. Or not at all. It’s possible Willis could now be presenting evidence before a regular grand jury, though many legal experts believe that the DA may be waiting until her team’s work is ironclad before moving forward.

Who is most at risk of being indicted?

At least 18 people were informed by prosecutors last year that they were targets of the investigation and could be charged with crimes. Among them: 16 of the Georgia Republicans who served as “alternate” electors for Trump (the DA’s office was later barred from pursuing one, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, due to a political conflict of interest) and Trump’s former personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Dallas lawyer and podcaster Jacki Pick, who appeared with Giuliani at a statehouse hearing and narrated a heavily edited video of vote counting at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, was also told she’s a target. There may be others whose names haven’t surfaced publicly.

What about Trump?

The former president is at the center of many of the events that were probed by the DA and special grand jury and could be indicted as a result of the probe. Trump’s Georgia attorneys recently said he was never subpoenaed or contacted by prosecutors to voluntarily answer questions, though that doesn’t preclude Willis from pursuing charges against him.

Some legal observers believe there’s enough information in the public domain for Trump to be charged — and that’s without knowing what new information the special grand jury might have uncovered. Specifically, experts point to the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call during which Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to overturn the results of the election.

Others say Trump’s plea to Raffensperger was too equivocal to be prosecuted and that the former president is protected on First Amendment and other legal grounds. Trump said Thursday that the report represented a “total exoneration.”

Could the inquiry implicate Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger?

No. Both Republicans were seen as key witnesses, not perpetrators, since they stood up to Trump’s pressure to reverse Democrat Joe Biden’s win.

What happens after someone is indicted for a crime in Fulton County?

Sometimes an arrest warrant is issued for a defendant to be taken into custody, and then that person will appear before a judge to try to get a bond and be released pending trial. Other times a defendant is allowed to self-surrender to the sheriff’s office with a bond already agreed to by the DA’s office and the defendant’s criminal defense attorney.

How long could it take for any sort of trial to get underway? How about any resolution?

It will depend on whether many defendants are indicted and then what challenges they raise before trial. Some pre-trial challenges, such as those seeking to dismiss an indictment or quash critical evidence, can result in appeals that can delay a trial for several months.

Fulton County is also still working through an enormous backlog of cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means it could be a year or more before there is any resolution, should indictments be obtained.

Finally, if a defendant files a speedy trial demand, it’s likely a trial would have to be scheduled before the end of the next two terms of court. That would be within four months. So if a person is indicted in March and files a speedy trial demand, their trial would need to be scheduled by the end of June.

If his past legal history is any guide, Trump is expected to fight any charges filed against him and drag out proceedings as long as possible. He’s also likely to cite executive privilege where he can and try and move any proceedings from state to federal court. Any appeals could then reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Willis has been investigating this issue for more than two years. Is it customary for criminal investigations to take this long?

It is not customary for most criminal investigations. But this one is unusual, with so many different targets, witnesses and facets. At this point, it’s very unlikely the investigation has ended. Investigations routinely continue even after indictments are obtained.

Is the Fulton probe connected to what prosecutors at the Justice Department are working on in relation to Trump and his efforts to cling to power?

While the inquiries have overlapping interests and key players, they are separate. The Justice Department is focused on potential violations of federal law, while the Fulton probe is state-focused. It’s possible prosecutors are keeping one another informed of what they’re doing, but they are not required to coordinate or yield to one another.

Should anyone be indicted and convicted of crimes related to Georgia’s 2020 elections in Fulton County, could they be pardoned by the president?

Only someone convicted of federal offenses gets the opportunity to seek a presidential pardon. Since any possible indictments in Fulton County would involve state crimes, any subsequent convictions would not be eligible for presidential pardons.

State pardons can only be approved by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor. Such pardons are rare.

How do you pronounce Fani Willis’ first name?

It’s FAWN-ee, like the baby deer. Not fanny.

How is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering this?

Anchored by legal affairs reporter Bill Rankin and Tamar Hallerman, the paper’s former Washington correspondent, the AJC has followed every twist and turn of the investigation since the beginning. From breaking news, to profiles of the key players and smart analysis, they have you covered, both in print and on the in-depth Breakdown podcast. The team recently added longtime politics reporter and editor Shannon McCaffrey to help oversee its coverage. She joins editor Dan Klepal, who has been with the team every step of the way.