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Who is Ashleigh Merchant, lawyer in the Trump case in Georgia

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Who is Ashleigh Merchant, lawyer in the Trump case in Georgia

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Published
February 14, 2024

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Feb. 14, 2024, 10:57 a.m. ET

Ashleigh Merchant never stops running – and that has also put frightened Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in a difficult position.

The 46-year-old “tough” Georgia criminal defense attorney who runs marathons in her spare time will be at the center of a hearing in Atlanta on Thursday that could upend the sprawling election-rigging and organized crime case against former President Donald Trump and others.

In August, a Fulton County grand jury issued 41-count indictments accusing Trump and 18 co-defendants of plotting to overturn the former president's 2020 election loss in Georgia. Willis is leading the investigation.

Then on Jan. 8, Merchant filed a high-profile motion on behalf of her client, 52-year-old Republican politician Mike Roman, alleging that Willis had an “inappropriate” and “secret” relationship with Nathan Wade, whom Willis had appointed as special prosecutor, and asking that Willis' charges against Roman be dropped.

Merchant, who was just sworn in as president of the Georgia State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued that Willis should be disqualified from the case because “the district attorney chose to appoint her domestic partner, who was a married man at all times relevant to this charge.”

Defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, here Monday during a hearing between the state of Georgia and President Trump and 18 other defendants. AP

Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the election interference case, ruled Monday in favor of a hearing on whether there might be a conflict of interest between Fani Willis and Nathan Wade. Willis must testify. AP

Merchant alleged that Wade, an attorney with the Marietta, Georgia-based law firm Wade & Campbell, used part of the nearly $654,000 in legal fees he received from the Fulton County District Attorney's Office for his work on the Trump case to take luxurious vacations with Willis “in Napa Valley, California, Florida and the Caribbean.”

Willis, 44, has admitted to having a “relationship” with Wade – a personal injury attorney with little to no experience in high-profile criminal trials – but her office has dismissed it as “gossip” that was not intended to derail the racketeering case.

Willis and Wade will face a hearing on Thursday to determine whether their relationship constitutes a conflict of interest. Merchant said the hearing should lead to the dismissal of the case against her client and, by extension, against Trump and the others.

Georgia criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant will be the focus of Thursday's hearing on the possible disqualification of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from prosecuting Trump. AP

Willis (second from left) appointed Wade (third from left) as a special prosecutor and paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars. On Thursday, a judge begins a two-day hearing that could result in both being removed from the case. REUTERS

All persons accused by Willis in the Georgia election fraud case. FULTON COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE/AFP via Getty Images

Willis could be forced to testify about the beginning of her relationship with Wade, the presiding judge in the Trump case, Scott McAfee, said on Monday.

This puts Merchant in the national spotlight and could end the case against Trump, which some legal experts had considered the strongest of the four charges against him and his 14 co-defendants, four of whom have pleaded guilty to multiple counts.

Merchant said she is not biased in her work; she just goes out of her way to advocate for her clients. That's when she snooped around in a divorce filing filed by Wade's then-estranged wife, Joycelyn – and found information that led her to believe Willis and Wade may have benefited financially from Wade's appointment as special prosecutor in the case.

Merchant is the president-elect of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and has been described as a “pit bull.” AP

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is in the crosshairs of a motion filed by Ashleigh Merchant on behalf of her client, Trump co-defendant Mike Roman, and is scheduled to testify at a hearing Thursday. AP

“I would describe myself as a proactive defense attorney rather than a reactive defense attorney,” Merchant told The Post.

“Many lawyers just react and defend, but I try to be more proactive and investigate every aspect of a case.

“Many lawyers let the government investigate and then try to refute it. I take a completely different approach. I try to defend my clients with facts and the truth. And I would never do anything just to thwart a case.

Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade was appointed by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has admitted to a romantic relationship with him. AP

“I only take actions that have been carefully investigated and have a legal basis. When the government tries to send someone to prison, I believe a defense attorney has a duty to his clients to fully investigate every aspect of a case.”

As for preparations, “I ran this morning and it felt great!” Merchant told the Post on Tuesday. “I actually think about cross-examination and arguments during long runs.”

The two-day hearing scheduled for Thursday and Friday will showcase carefully honed skills, her friends said.

Ashleigh Merchant was preparing her case on behalf of Trump co-defendant Mike Roman when she found possible information about the affair between Willis and Wade in the divorce documents of Wade's estranged wife Joycelyn. @purevinesfreshwines

“Ashleigh is a damn good lawyer, a real pit bull,” Dwight Thomas, 72, one of Atlanta’s most powerful and respected criminal defense attorneys, told the Post.

“I have known her for many years and she is aggressive, eager and leaves no stone unturned. She thrives on this kind of hard work and pressure and doesn't mind getting tempers flared.

“A lot is riding on this hearing and she will be more than ready for it, I can assure you.”

Longtime Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democratic state representative who has become a vocal Trump supporter, said Merchant was “the best-kept secret in this case.”

The law office of Ashleigh Merchant and her husband John Merchant III in Marietta, Georgia. Daniela Kennedy

“She's going to be the person who brings this (Trump) case to a halt,” Jones told the Post. “She has an explosive, brilliant legal and political mind. She's the one that all the other (the other co-defendants) are basing their legal strategy on. That's how Ashleigh feels, that's how everyone else feels.”

To make matters worse for Willis, Republican lawmakers in the US state of Georgia said on Friday that several prosecutors would like to testify in a special Senate investigation against their boss.

She is also under investigation by the Georgia State Prosecuting Attorneys' Qualifications Commission, and Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio has subpoenaed her for documents related to allegations that Willis fired a whistleblower from her office and misused federal funds.

Before the Trump case, Merchant (above) was best known for her successful defense of a man accused of murdering former Georgia beauty queen Tara Grinstead in 2005. gacdl.wildapricot.org

Merchant works with her husband, John Merchant III, in a deceptively small-looking firm in an office park in Marietta, about two miles from Wade's office. The two met in law school at the University of Florida and have two daughters.

Before this year, Merchant was best known for her successful defense of a man accused of murdering former beauty queen and current history teacher Tara Grinstead in 2005.

It was a particularly difficult case. Ryan Alexander Duke had confessed to killing Grinstead and burning her body, but when he took the stand he recanted his testimony, saying he was afraid to mention the name of his friend Bo Dukes.

Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is the former president's most high-profile co-defendant. If Willis is removed from the case, charges against him would be at stake. AFP via Getty Images

Duke was sentenced to ten years in prison for covering up a death, but was acquitted of charges of first-degree murder, premeditated murder, aggravated assault and burglary.

Her friend and colleague Megan Grout, a Georgia-based criminal defense attorney who belongs to an informal group of women criminal defense lawyers called BAWLS (BAdass Women Lawyers), said she could “talk about Ashleigh all day. She's going to raise hell in that courtroom on Thursday.”

“She is absolutely fearless and absolutely dedicated,” Grout said. “Just know that my daughter is in law school and says Ashleigh is her role model – and her mother is a criminal defense attorney!”

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