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In Atlanta, a local prosecutor takes on murder, street gangs, and a president

Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, in Atlanta, Aug. 30, 2022. Willis has emerged as one of the most consequential legal threats to former President Donald Trump while presiding over the justice system in Georgia's most populous county. (Audra Melton/The New York Times)AUDRA MELTON/NYT

ATLANTA — Fani T. Willis strode up to a podium in a red dress late last month in downtown Atlanta, flanked by an array of dark suits and stone-faced officers in uniform. Her voice rang out loud and clear, with a hint of swagger.

“If you thought Fulton was a good county to bring your crime to, to bring your violence to, you are wrong,” she said, facing a bank of news cameras. “And you are going to suffer consequences.”

Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia, had called the news conference to talk about a street gang known as Drug Rich, whose members had just been indicted in a sprawling racketeering case. But she could have been talking about another crew that she is viewing as a possible criminal enterprise: former president Donald Trump and his allies who tried to overturn his narrow 2020 election loss in Georgia.

In recent weeks, Willis has called dozens of witnesses to testify before a special grand jury investigating efforts to undo Trump’s defeat, including a number of prominent pro-Trump figures who traveled, against their will, from other states. It was long arm of the law stuff, and it emphasized how her investigation, although playing out more than 600 miles from Washington, D.C., is no sideshow.

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Rather, the Georgia inquiry has emerged as one of the most consequential legal threats to the former president, and it is already being shaped by Willis’s distinct and forceful personality and her conception of how a local prosecutor should do her job. Her comfort in the public eye stands in marked contrast to the low-key approach of another Trump legal pursuer, Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Willis, 50, a Democrat, is the first Black woman to lead Georgia’s largest district attorney’s office. In her 19 years as a prosecutor, she has led more than 100 jury trials and handled hundreds of murder cases. Since she became chief prosecutor, her office’s conviction rate has stood at close to 90%, according to a spokesperson.

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Her experience is the source of her confidence, which appears unshaken by the scrutiny — and criticism — the Trump case has brought.

She tends to speak as if the world were her jury box. Sometimes she is colloquial and warm. In a recent interview, she noted, as an aside, how much she loved Valentine’s Day: “Put that in there, in case I get a new boo,” she said. But she can also throw sharp elbows. In a heated e-mail exchange in July over the terms of a grand jury appearance by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, Willis called the governor’s lawyer, Brian McEvoy, “wrong and confused,” and “rude,” among other things.

“You have taken my kindness as weakness,” she wrote, adding: “Despite your disdain this investigation continues and will not be derailed by anyone’s antics.”

The phrase “I don’t like a bully” is one Willis deploys often. After taking office in January, she had a quote from Malcolm X painted on the wall as a mission statement: “I’m for truth no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.”

Willis, as a child, split time between her divorced parents. Her father was a former Black Panther and criminal defense lawyer who practiced in the Washington, D.C., area. He brought her to the courthouse often and put her to work as his file clerk starting in elementary school. A career in law, she said, was never in doubt.

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She attended Howard University, then moved to Atlanta to attend Emory Law School. She felt at home in Atlanta: As an undergraduate, she had attended Freaknik, the boisterous, mostly Black Atlanta street party that became a headache for city leaders and an inspiration for novelist Tom Wolfe’s satirical exploration of the Southern city and its racial divides. She settled down in the area, raising two girls as a working single parent and finding her calling in the prosecutor’s office. She took on murder cases for eight years straight.

“I wore a pager and got up in the middle of the night and walked over bodies,” she said. “And I know what kind of pain it causes when you lose someone.”

The experience helped set her on a philosophical course to the right of America’s progressive prosecutors, as well as her liberal father (“We have knockdown, drag ’em out arguments,” she said) but to the left of the traditional lock-them-up crowd.

She has declined to answer questions about the likely course of her investigation as it specifically pertains to Trump, but his indictment in Georgia remains a plausible scenario, particularly given his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in January 2021, in which the then-president asked Raffensperger to “find” the votes to put him over the top. Some legal experts contend that this call alone may have violated a state law against the solicitation to commit election fraud.

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Willis has indicated that she may pursue the range of election-meddling efforts in Georgia as a multidefendant racketeering case, much as she has against Drug Rich and other street gangs.

Before the Trump investigation, Willis’s most high-profile case, as an assistant prosecutor, was against a group of Atlanta public school system educators, who were indicted in 2013 and charged with racketeering for altering students’ standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators.

Willis said the size of that case, with its 3,000-person witness list, helped prepare her for the Trump inquiry. She also learned how to handle intense controversy. Most of the defendants were Black. So were many of her critics, who were displeased by the sight of teachers from a struggling urban school district put on trial. She was called a sellout, she said, and worse.

These days, her critics come from the left and right. Phil Kent, a conservative-leaning Georgia political commentator, argued that Willis’s priorities were misplaced. “She is wasting time, money and resources on the special grand jury that ought to be applied to going after the backlog of cases, especially when there’s rising violent crime,” he said.

Willis said that she has just five lawyers working on the Trump case, out of a total of roughly 140 on her staff.

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Some liberals, meanwhile, have criticized her use of rap lyrics in building her antigang cases, which have included charges against notable Atlanta hip-hop stars like Young Thug and Gunna. The Drug Rich indictment, for example, makes use of boastful lyrics by alleged associates of the gang in a YouTube video (“If we steal a car, we gonna take off the tag”), citing them as an “overt act” in furtherance of racketeering activity.

Willis stands by the tactic: “If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it.”

She has received violent threats since May from people angry over the indictment of Young Thug and members of his crew. Before that, she had asked the FBI to provide “intelligence and federal agents” and to increase security at the Fulton County courthouse after Trump referred to her and other prosecutors as “vicious, horrible people” at a rally in January.

Gerald A. Griggs, president of the Georgia NAACP, who worked with Willis in the Atlanta solicitor’s office years ago, called Willis “a phenomenal prosecutor.”

“But she’s drinking the Kool-Aid,” said Griggs, who added that she was focusing too much on incarcerating poor Black people and not doing enough to address social ills.

In response, Willis rattled off a list of innovations she had implemented, including changes to alternative sentencing and diversion programs, and a criminal justice class for public school children.

“Mr. Griggs,” she said, “don’t know what he’s talking about.”