Long before the FBI began investigating Donald Trump’s hoarding of classified documents or Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special prosecutor to probe the former president, Fani Willis was at work.
Just one month after Trump’s infamous January 2021 phone call to suggest Georgia’s secretary of state could overturn his election loss, the Fulton County district attorney announced she was looking into possible illegal “attempts to influence” the results in what has become one of America’s premier political battlegrounds.
As she built her case, Willis called a parade of high-profile witnesses before a special grand jury, presiding over an investigation that was so public it seemed she would become the first prosecutor in U.S. history to indict a former president.
She instead became the third person to levy criminal charges against Trump, leapfrogged by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith. But the indictment Willis brought on August 14 against Trump and 18 associates was the most sprawling case detailing the former president’s desperate efforts to remain in power after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
“Their indictment alleges that rather than abide by Georgia’s legal process for election challenges the defendants engaged in a criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result,” Willis said in announcing the charges.
Trump stepped up his criticism of Willis in advance of the charges, calling the 52-year-old Black woman “a young woman, a young racist in Atlanta.”
Willis has long declined to comment on Trump’s insults. But with his campaign running a vicious attack ad last week, she emailed her staff to warn that it included “derogatory and false information” about her and instructed them not to react publicly.
“You may not comment in any way on the ad or any of the negativity that may be expressed against me, your colleagues, this office in coming days, weeks or months,” she wrote. “We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any. This is business, it will never be personal.”
Willis has led plenty of prominent prosecutions, but nothing that compares to indicting a former president, particularly one who fights his perceived enemies with the intensity of Trump. She used Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law to charge not only the former president but also a collection of his allies for alleged participation in a wide-ranging conspiracy.
Some people who end up facing charges may challenge the indictment based on the fact that they were compelled to testify before the special grand jury in an investigation in which they ended up being a target. In the federal system, prosecutors are required to seek approval from senior-level officials before issuing a subpoena to a target and, in the interest of fairness, are urged to pursue alternatives to compelling a target’s testimony. But the special grand jury was an investigative tool and lacked the power to indict.
Willis spent most of her career as an assistant district attorney in Fulton County and is known by both her colleagues and defense attorneys to be a tremendously talented litigator with a gift for connecting with juries. A few years after leaving that office, she returned as its leader in January 2021 after winning a bitter Democratic primary fight to oust her predecessor and former mentor.
Now a divorced mother of two grown daughters, Willis was raised mostly in Washington by her father, a defense attorney who she has said was a Black Panther. She graduated from Howard University and from Emory University School of Law four years later, choosing to stay on in Atlanta to practice law.
“She’s really a tough-on-crime liberal, which is kind of a rare bird these days, but I think that’s her brand,” said Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis.
Trump has recently called Atlanta a “crime-ridden” city where “people are afraid to walk outside.” While it is true that Atlanta, like most other major cities, saw a spike in violent crime in recent years, those levels have improved significantly. As of August 5, homicides were down 25%, rapes had dropped by 56% and aggravated assaults had decreased by 22% compared with the same time last year, according to Atlanta police data.
Willis has said she likes the RICO statute because it allows prosecutors to paint a more complete picture of the alleged illegal activity.
Her most prominent case as an assistant district attorney was a RICO prosecution against a group of Atlanta public school educators accused in a scheme to inflate students’ standardized test scores. After a seven-month trial, a jury in April 2015 convicted 11 of them on the racketeering charge.
Since becoming district attorney, she has brought several RICO cases, some against well-known rappers. The first of those cases to go to trial has been tied up in jury selection since January and is expected to last six to nine months once testimony gets underway.
Willis has urged patience from the beginning of her investigation and is fond of saying she does not try “skinny cases,” meaning she likes to have lots of evidence. And Rucker, her former colleague, said he is not surprised the investigation has stretched on so long, saying the two of them worked every day for almost two years to prepare for the school cheating case.
While she is likely to let her hand-picked group of prosecutors handle the trial, there is no question she is calling the shots, Rucker said. With a case of this magnitude, she would have required those on her team to gather and digest an enormous amount of information and would have grilled them to make sure there were no holes, he said.
“When she says stuff like, ‘We’re ready to go,’ that’s not being braggadocious,” Rucker said. “It’s her saying pretty much to anybody who’s interested, ‘Look, we’re ready.'”