Atlanta's first female district attorney is leading investigations from Trump to Young Thug
By Shawna Mizelle, CNNUpdated: Wed, 16 Nov 2022 13:01:23 GMTSource: CNNWhen former President Donald Trump phoned Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to "find" votes to overturn thBy Shawna Mizelle, CNN
Updated: Wed, 16 Nov 2022 13:01:23 GMT
When former President Donald Trump phoned Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to "find" votes to overturn the 2020 presidential election results on January 2, 2021, Fani Willis had only been in office as Fulton County district attorney for a day.
She had campaigned on the premise of restoring integrity to the Fulton County district attorney's office, was elected after ousting six-term incumbent Paul Howard and inherited a stack of backlogged cases from her predecessor.
By early February, her office was firing off letters to Georgia officials asking them to preserve documents related to attempts to influence the state's 2020 election.
Asked by CNN in February 2022 about the struggle to envision a former president under prosecution in her state, Willis said, "What I could envision is that we actually live in a society where Lady Justice is blind, and that it doesn't matter if you're rich poor, Black, White, Democrat or Republican. If you violated the law, you're going to be charged."
Now, nearly two years into her tenure, Fulton County's first female DA continues to make headlines as she leads investigations into former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia and RICO indictments against Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug and his associates.
Fom California, by way of Washington, DC, Willis obtained her undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1992 and graduated from Emory School of Law in 1996, according to her biography. Her name, Fani, is Swahili and means "prosperous," and her father was a lawyer and Black Panther.
According to a South Atlanta Magazine profile, she worked in the private sector for five years before becoming assistant district attorney for Fulton County in 2001.
'I just took the leap of faith'
Willis drew attention as a leading prosecutor in the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal. Prosecuting the seven-month trial from 2014 to 2015, Willis secured convictions for 11 of the 12 defendants charged with racketeering and other crimes related to cheating that was believed to date to early 2001, when scores on statewide skills tests began to rise in the 50,000-student school district.
She opened a private practice focused on criminal defense and family law in 2018. "I was raised by a single a father and so my heart is always with fathers -- so in my family law practice I tend to represent men that are going through battles you know with children and child support and child custody," Willis said in a July 2020 interview.
She ran against Howard, her former boss, amid allegations against him of misconduct including financial mismanagement and sexual harassment. He previously questioned the timing of the sexual harassment lawsuits, which he said came "within weeks of the general election."
CNN has reached out to Howard for additional comment.
Willis, a mother of two, told South Atlanta Magazine shortly after being elected that she always knew she wanted to serve as district attorney, "but in my mind, I would never run against the sitting DA ... but the cries got louder and louder and louder ... and I just took the leap of faith and did what God called me to do."
Willis, pointing to the coronavirus pandemic and her predecessor, has said she faced a backlog of thousands of cases when she took office last year.
Because of Georgia law that says suspects who've been charged with crimes in the state are entitled to bond if they're not indicted within 90 days, Willis was tasked with handing down indictments or allowing violent offenders to return to the streets.
She pushed to secure additional funding from the Fulton County Commission to hire 55 new staff members for the district attorney's office, including 15 attorneys and 15 investigators. Willis said at the time that her office had worked "around the clock" to make sure murder cases were indicted before the deadline. Still, Willis said there would be "four or five-hundred defendants that we don't make the clock on and they, without having the proper evaluation by law, a judge will be mandated to give them a bond."
As district attorney, Willis created a pre-indictment diversion program that allows defendants to be enrolled in life skills courses and participate in community service rather than be charged.
Although Willis serves Fulton County -- which includes Atlanta and Sandy Springs, Georgia --her moves as district attorney often draw national regard.
"The way she goes about any cases, she starts at the top and she really dives into it. She follows every lead that she can," said Charlie Bailey, who previously worked with Willis in the Fulton County DA's office and on the 2014 Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal case, where she used racketeering statutes to secure guilty pleas from teachers and administrators.
"Ultimately she will make a decision based on the fact that they will uncover," Bailey told CNN last year. "And she'll make a decision based on applying that pertinent law."
Willis' working relationship with Bailey was the source of public scrutiny when she hosted a campaign fundraiser in support of his lieutenant governor bid in June and donated to his primary campaign. Bailey's opponent, Burt Jones, a Republican state senator and one of 16 fake Trump electors who signed on to the "unofficial electorate certificate" in a plan to subvert the Electoral College in the 2020 election, ultimately prevailed in the race, CNN projected.
A Georgia judge blocked Willis from pursuing an investigation against Jones after his attorneys argued her political actions should disqualify her and suggested asking Georgia's attorney general to appoint a new district attorney to oversee the case.
In addition to blocking the investigation, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, criticized Willis for hosting a fundraiser for a candidate running against one of the investigation's potential targets."It's a 'What are you thinking?' moment," McBurney said. "The optics are horrific."
Bailey declined to comment to CNN for this article.
Investigation into Georgia's fake electors
Willis is one of five independently elected investigators across the US garnering high-profile attention by conducting an investigation into a former president.
While investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to thwart the election in Georgia, Willis and her team interviewed the 16 fake electors put forward in Georgia as alternate slates of electors. The district attorney's office announced in July that those electors were targets of the probe.
"As our investigation has matured and new evidence has come to light, in a spirit of integrity we feel it only fitting to inform you that your clients' status has changed to 'Target,'" Willis' office said at the time, according to a defense filing.
Willis' office appeared to be trying to determine whether the pro-Trump electors in Georgia had any knowledge that their actions may have been a component of a broader and potentially illegal plot to pressure election officials and overturn Joe Biden's victory, a source previously told CNN.
A number of notable figures have received special grand jury subpoenas as a part of the DA's investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state and still others have cooperated with the probe.
The special grand jury does not issue indictments but rather collects evidence and issues a report on whether Trump or any of his allies should face charges. If it recommends an indictment, Willis could then pursue an indictment from a regularly seated grand jury in Fulton County.
'Don't confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used'
While Willis has subpoenaed Trump allies, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rudy Giuliani, she has also handed down Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) indictments to chart-topping rappers including Young Thug and Gunna.
Willis previously announced indictments of Young Thug and Drug Rich Gang in cases that have cited song lyrics as evidence -- an approach critics call an infringement on First Amendment rights.
When asked by a reporter during a news conference in August how she responds to criticism that she is specifically targeting Atlanta's hip-hop community by using lyrics in criminal cases, Willis said, "I'm not targeting anyone, but however, you do not get to commit crimes in my county and then decide to brag on it, which you do that for a form of intimidation and to further the gang and not be held responsible."
While her use of lyrics as evidence may anger some, Willis said, she will continue to use them.
"I have some legal advice. Don't confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used or at least get out of my county," she said.