Nearly a decade ago, Judge Jerry Baxter led the prosecution that first spotlighted Georgia’s Fani Willis in a massive scandal involving fraud by Atlanta public school teachers.
Now, far more eyes are on the Fulton County District Attorney as her investigation into alleged efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to reverse his Georgia election defeat in 2020 draws to a close and a possible fourth indictment against Trump looms , who denies any wrongdoing .
A fee decision is imminent. Willis is expected to present her findings to a grand panel of judges next week.
“I would hate if Fani Willis came after me,” Baxter told ABC News. “She is an excellent litigator and a real bargain.”
A “stubborn prosecutor”
Willis said she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a lawyer when she accompanied her father, a former Black Panther and defense attorney, to court.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Howard University and her law degree from Emory University in Georgia.
In 2001, she became the assistant district attorney for Fulton County, which includes much of Atlanta. She worked there for 16 years, handling homicide, sexual assault, and other serious cases.
“She managed to make it look easy,” said attorney Clint Rucker, a former colleague. “Her reputation as a very good trial attorney has developed because of her courtroom demeanor and style in presenting these complex murder cases. She is very stubborn. She is very aggressive.”
Rucker said that despite her small stature, Willis had a voice that drew people in.
Perhaps her most famous case was the Atlanta public school cheating scandal of 2013, in which authorities said teachers admitted to increasing standardized test scores to show improvements in student performance. Willis was the lead prosecutor in the eight-month trial, the longest in state history, which ended in 2015 with the conviction of 11 teachers and educators on racketeering charges.
The case was controversial. Many in the community didn’t like the idea of prosecuting teachers under the RICO Act, a law known for bringing down mafia members.
“I thought it was an exaggeration,” Akil Secret, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of the accused educators, told ABC News. Although he disagreed with the course of action, Secret described Willis as “fair” and “honest” during the trial and a “hard-headed prosecutor” overall.
“During that time, she was an opponent,” Secret said. “But she was an honorable opponent in my opinion.”
Willis has defended her work in the case, citing the aggrieved students.
“I’ve always told people I’m fighting for these kids,” she told South Atlanta Magazine in 2022. “If you say what you all say about me in my obituary, I can live with that.”
become a District Attorney
Willis left the prosecutor’s office in 2018 to relaunch her own law practice.
Then acting district attorney Paul Howard — her former boss — was charged with sexual harassment and financial misconduct. Howard denied the sexual harassment allegations and predicted he would be “completely exonerated” in the financial misconduct investigation initiated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and later turned over to the attorney general’s office for review, but agreed to pay an ethics penalty in 2020, according to ABC subsidiary WSB.
Willis ran to drop him off, criticizing his office as dysfunctional and corrupt. She presented herself to voters as a necessary change and promised to proceed with greater transparency and integrity.
“I plan to do the work of Fulton County citizens to keep everyone safe, to represent everyone and to make sure those who break the law – whether it’s a police officer, whether they’re an elected officer or if they’re the person kicking your door down — that they’ll be prosecuted, that they’ll be held accountable, and that we’re safe as a society,” she told the Atlanta Voice in August 2020.
She defeated Howard, a six-year incumbent, in a runoff primary and went unchallenged in the general election. She is the first woman to hold the office.
Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool
Secret served on Willis’ 22-person transition team for a month, tasked with making recommendations for improving the prosecution service and the social and criminal justice issues it posed. Much of this involves working in the community and finding creative ways to solve cases, in addition to traditional prison sentences, he said.
Some of Willis’ initiatives, including a pre-trial diversionary program that allows some individuals to do community service or receive compensation rather than being charged, have been described as progressive.
But she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2020 that she sees herself in the middle.
“Some prosecutors don’t believe there should be jail,” Willis told the paper after defeating Howard. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t like violent crime. I’ve walked over enough corpses to know prisons are needed.”
“On the other end of the spectrum, there are these people who think everyone should go to jail,” she continued. “I do not believe that. I think we should have programs that restore people. I’m not extreme on this liberal side. I’m not extreme on this conservative side. I understand these issues perfectly.”
Since taking office, she has been cracking down on gang activities. She brought RICO charges against suspected members of the Bloods gang, the “Drug Rich Gang,” as well as popular rap stars Young Thug and Gunna, and other suspected members of Young Slime Life, or YSL for short.
(Young Thung has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial; Gunna submitted what is known as an Alford plea, in which he pleaded innocent but pleaded guilty, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict.)
Willis has been criticized for using rap lyrics as alleged evidence in her criminal trials, which many have found discriminatory against artists in the hip-hop community, but she has defended it: “I think if you choose to do so, your crimes.” to admit by the way.” “I’ll use it,” she told reporters last year.
Take on Trump
Willis has often described how Trump first came across her desk.
It was her first day in office as District Attorney, and the now infamous call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, which was televised non-stop in January 2021, in which Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” just enough votes to reverse his electoral defeat of Joe Biden in the state.
Eight days later, on January 10, 2021, Willis told Gov. Brian Kemp that her office had opened an investigation.
Willis told the New York Times earlier this year that she had hoped the call had been made in another jurisdiction but quickly realized it was within her jurisdiction.
“I’m sticking with it,” she told the Times.
Since then, Willis has spoken to the media about the case — prompting recriminations from Republicans.
Josh McKoon, chair of the Georgia GOP, recently tweeted, “Willis doesn’t even pretend to be impartial as she “invites television cameras into her office to discuss her phony investigation.”
Trump has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong and that he is being followed, calling the conversation with Raffensperger “perfect.” The former president has attacked Willis as a “radical left” prosecutor.
Earlier this week he published an ad calling Willis and others who have accused him a “fraud squad”. Willis issued an internal memo obtained by ABC News urging her staff not to respond to the ad and telling them “this is business and will never be personal.”
Willis said in late July after two and a half years of investigation that “the work was complete.”
“We’re ready to go,” she told local broadcaster WXIA. She also said enhanced security measures would be put in place ahead of any announcement.
“I would say if she’s anything like the Fani I know, the preparation of this case has been thorough and the presentation to the grand jury will be very professional,” said Rucker, who worked with Willis on the public case school in Atlanta.
“And if this grand jury brings an indictment that charges the former President of the United States with a crime, it would be a circumstance of such historic proportions that I can’t think of any prosecutor in the whole country who would have a case like that more important than.” this one,” Rucker told ABC News. “And she gets the point.”