ATLANTA – The district attorney investigating whether former President Donald Trump should face charges for attempting to pressure Georgia's elections chief into changing the results of the presidential race in his favor has a reputation as a tough courtroom veteran, not only as a prosecutor but also as a defense lawyer and judge.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who was sworn in last month after winning a resounding 2020 election victory over her former boss, entered the national spotlight Wednesday when letters to top state officials revealed her office is investigating whether illegal attempts were made to influence the state’s 2020 elections. That includes the Jan. 2 phone call in which Trump was recorded asking Georgia’s secretary of state to overturn his defeat.
Prosecuting Trump would likely prove a career-defining move for Willis — and one fraught with risk, said Atlanta attorney Robert James, a former district attorney in neighboring DeKalb County. Constituents in heavily Democratic Atlanta would demand an aggressive prosecution. The Republican ex-president would likely unleash an army of lawyers to defend him. And news coverage would scrutinize every step, or misstep.
“Nobody should be confused about the fact that you’re going into a whirlwind,” James said. “If this is what she chooses to do based on the facts and the evidence, from what I know about her as a prosecutor, she’s smart enough and tough enough to handle it.”
In her first weeks on the job, Willis has already faced criticism for trying to hand off two high-profile cases against police officers, including a fatal shooting. But fellow lawyers who have faced her in court say she's a skilled litigator who isn't afraid of tough cases.
“She is a hard-charging, tough trial lawyer,” Atlanta defense attorney Page Pate said. “I would never question her ethics. I would never question her diligence or her intelligence. She is a bulldog when she thinks she’s on the right side.”
Willis worked 17 years as an assistant district attorney under Paul Howard, who was Georgia's first Black DA when he took office in 1997. Before challenging Howard for his job in 2020, Willis spent short stints as a criminal defense lawyer and a municipal court judge.
Running an aggressive campaign in which she accused Howard of mismanagement, Willis trounced him in an August runoff election for the Democratic nomination, winning nearly 72% of the vote. With no Republican on the ballot, Willis cruised to victory in November.
In her most high-profile case under Howard, Willis served as the lead prosecutor bringing charges against nearly three dozen Atlanta public school educators accused in a cheating scandal. In April 2015, after an unwieldy trial that spanned months, a jury convicted 11 former educators of racketeering for their role in a scheme to inflate students’ scores on standardized exams.
Pate, who defended one of the accused educators, said Howard bungled the case and should have lost. But Willis and her co-counsel, he said, “pieced that thing together, worked day and night to make it what it was.”
The new district attorney has come under fire for seeking to offload a pair of cases against Atlanta police. One involves officers charged with dragging two Black college students from a car during May protests over racial injustice. The other deals with two officers charged in the July 12 shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man killed as he tried to flee arrest for drunken driving.
Willis last month asked Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to reassign the cases to an outside prosecutor, arguing that her predecessor had acted improperly in the cases, including politicizing them during his reelection campaign. Carr declined to transfer the cases.
Though some attorneys said Willis had good reason for seeking to recuse her office, her attempt outraged members of Brooks’ family.
“Not only did you hurt me, but you hurt everyone out here who was counting on you to do the right thing,” Tomika Miller, Brooks’ widow, said at a news conference last week. “You say that you don’t run from hard cases. But, baby, you ran from this one.”
Shean Williams, an Atlanta civil rights attorney who represents the family of a man killed in a different police shooting being prosecuted by Willis’ office, said he understands the desire to have such cases prosecuted by the local district attorney. He applauded Willis for investigating Trump’s phone call, saying it makes him hopeful she will hold police officers and others in power accountable.
It's uncertain whether Willis will seek charges against Trump or anyone else in relation to the election.
Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller has already decried the investigation, saying it’s a continuation of a “witch hunt” by Democrats against the former president.
Though Willis' letters to state officials don't name Trump as a target, the prosecutor’s spokesman, Jeff DiSantis, confirmed that, among other things, investigators are looking into the phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, can be heard on the call rejecting Trump's repeated calls for him to change the state's certified results of the presidential election, which President Joe Biden won by about 12,000 votes.
“In most cases, you would have sort of a he-said, she-said case where one person is contending another party said something,” said Cathy Cox, dean of the law school at Mercer University and a former Georgia secretary of state. “But you have a tape of Trump’s actual words. There is no dispute of what he said.”
Regardless, in cases against celebrities and public officials like Trump, even obtaining a grand jury's indictment that allows a case to proceed to a trial court can be difficult, said James, the former DeKalb County prosecutor. That's because citizens empaneled to hear such cases often find it difficult to be impartial about famous defendants, he said.
“Ultimately, as a prosecutor, your job is to prosecute cases without fear, favor or affection," James said. "You look at the law, you look at the facts, and you compare the two.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia. Associated Press writer Sudhin Thanawala contributed from Atlanta.