Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has reemerged in the spotlight after her office charged 19 co-defendants, including Donald Trump, regarding efforts by the former president and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
The indictments are a culmination of an investigation that has lasted more than two years and has resulted in multiple charges including conspiracy and racketeering, which Willis has a history of successfully bringing against defendants.
The Atlanta-area prosecutor, who has not shied away from prosecuting high-profile cases, presented her case before a grand jury on Monday.
Willis, a Democrat who is Fulton County’s first female DA, had been in office for only a day when the former president phoned Georgia’s GOP secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, on January 2, 2021, urging him to “find” votes to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
She 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.
Within a month, her office was firing off letters to Georgia officials asking them to preserve documents related to attempts to influence the state’s 2020 election.
Trump has vehemently denied wrongdoing, as have his allies who are also under scrutiny in the probe. The former president has lashed out at Willis, who is Black, calling her “racist” and a “lunatic Marxist” and baselessly claiming she has ties to gang members.
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.”
Besides leading the election subversion probe, Willis has also brought anti-corruption indictments against Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug and his associates. The district attorney has spoken fondly of RICO – the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – and has used it in unorthodox ways to bring charges against school officials and musicians, including Young Thug.
“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 in 2021. “And she’ll make a decision based on applying that pertinent law.”
‘I just took the leap of faith’
From 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.
Willis drew attention as a leading prosecutor in the Atlanta Public Schools 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 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, as he faced allegations 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 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.”
Pointing to the coronavirus pandemic and her predecessor, Willis has said she faced a backlog of thousands of cases when she took office in 2021.
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 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, she said there would be “four- or five-hundred defendants that we don’t make the clock on and … 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.
Controversy over campaign fundraiser
Willis’ working relationship with Bailey, a former senior assistant district attorney, was the source of scrutiny last year when Willis hosted a campaign fundraiser in support of his bid for lieutenant governor and donated to his primary campaign. Bailey’s opponent, Burt Jones, a Republican state senator, ultimately prevailed in the race.
Jones was one of 16 Republicans who served as “fake electors” in a plan to subvert the Electoral College from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
A Georgia judge blocked Willis from pursuing an investigation against Jones after his attorneys argued her political actions should disqualify her.
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, including about the fundraiser.
A recent Trump campaign ad taking aim at multiple prosecutors noted that Willis was disqualified from investigating Jones but also included a baseless allegation that she hid a relationship with a gang member she was prosecuting.
Willis slammed the ad as “derogatory and false” and instructed her staff not to comment on it or other criticism directed toward her, her staff or her office in the coming months.
“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,” she wrote last week in an email to her staff obtained by CNN. “We have a job to do. In this office, we prosecute based on the facts and the law. The law is non-partisan. You should feel no need to defend me.”
Willis added: “Your instruction from me is to ignore all the noise and keep doing your job with excellence.”
She has also urged local officials to stay vigilant about possible security threats spurred by the election subversion case. In an email last month to Fulton County officials, Willis shared a racist and sexualized message she received and said similar obscene messages had been left via voicemail.
“I am sending to you in case you are unclear on what I and my staff have come accustomed to over the last 2 ½ years,” Willis wrote.
Investigation into Georgia’s fake electors
Willis is one of five independently elected investigators across the US who have garnered high-profile attention due to investigations into the former president.
While investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to thwart Georgia’s election results, Willis and her team interviewed the 16 Republicans put forward in the state as alternate slates of electors. The district attorney’s office announced last year 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 part of a broader and potentially illegal plot to pressure election officials and overturn Biden’s victory, a source previously told CNN.
A number of notable figures 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.
At least eight of the Republican “fake electors” have accepted immunity deals in the ongoing criminal investigation.
‘Don’t confess to crimes on rap lyrics if you do not want them used’
While Willis has subpoenaed Trump allies, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rudy Giuliani, she has also handed down 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 last August how she responds to criticism that she is specifically targeting Atlanta’s hip-hop community, 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.
CNN’s Jason Morris, Sara Murray and Amy Simonson contributed to this report.