(ATLANTA) — Nearly a decade ago, Judge Jerry Baxter oversaw the prosecution that first thrust Georgia’s Fani Willis in the spotlight — a massive scandal involving cheating by teachers in Atlanta’s public schools.
Now, many more eyes are watching the Fulton County district attorney as her investigation into alleged efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia nears its end and a potential fourth indictment looms for Trump, who denies all wrongdoing.
A charging decision is imminent. Willis is expected to present her findings to a grand jury next week.
“I would hate to have Fani Willis after me,” Baxter told ABC News. “She is a superb trial lawyer and the real deal.”
A ‘tenacious prosecutor’
Willis has said she knew since she was young and accompanied her father, a former Black Panther and defense attorney, to court that she wanted to be a lawyer.
She received her undergraduate degree at Howard University and a law degree from Emory University in Georgia.
In 2001 she became an assistant district attorney in Fulton County, which encompasses much of Atlanta. She worked there for 16 years, handling homicide, sexual assault and other major cases.
“She was able to make it look easy,” said attorney Clint Rucker, a former colleague. “Her reputation was developed as a very good litigator while presenting these complex murder cases because of her courtroom demeanor, her style. She’s very dogged. She’s very aggressive.”
Rucker said that despite her small stature, Willis had a voice that compelled people.
Arguably her most well-known case was the Atlanta public school cheating scandal in 2013, in which authorities said teachers admitted to inflating standardized test scores to show improvements in student achievement. Willis was the lead prosecutor in the eight-month trial, the longest in state history, that ended in 2015 with 11 teachers and educators convicted of racketeering.
The case was controversial. Many in the community didn’t like the idea of teachers being charged under the RICO Act, a statute famous for bringing down mafia members.
“I thought that it was an overreach,” Akil Secret, a criminal defense attorney who represented one of the educators charged, told ABC News. Though he disagreed with the approach, Secret described Willis as “fair” and “honest” during the proceeding and overall as a “tenacious prosecutor.”
“During that time, she was an adversary,” Secret said. “But she was, in my opinion, an honorable adversary.”
Willis has defended her work on the case, citing the students harmed.
“I always told people I was fighting for those children,” she told South Atlanta Magazine in 2022. “If in my obituary that’s what y’all say about me, I can live with it.”
Becoming district attorney
Willis left the district attorney’s office in 2018 to relaunch her own law firm.
Then, sitting District Attorney Paul Howard — her former boss — was accused of sexual harassment and financial misconduct. Howard denied the sexual harassment allegations and predicted he’d be “totally exonerated” in the financial misconduct probe, started by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and later turned over to the state attorney general’s office for review, though he agreed to pay an ethics fine in 2020, according to ABC affiliate WSB.
Willis ran to unseat him, criticizing his office as dysfunctional and corrupt. She pitched herself to voters as a needed change, vowing to operate with greater transparency and integrity.
“I plan to do the work of the citizens of Fulton County to keep everyone safe, to represent everyone and to make sure that those that break the law — whether they are a police officer, whether they are an elected official or whether they are the person that kicks in your door — that they are prosecuted, that they are held accountable and that we as a society are safe,” she told the Atlanta Voice in August 2020.
She defeated Howard, a six-term incumbent, in a runoff primary race and went on to be unchallenged in the general election. She is the first woman to hold the office.
Secret served for a month on Willis’ 22-member transition team tasked with providing recommendations for how to improve the district attorney’s office as well as the social and criminal justice issues it would be facing. Much of that involved community work and finding creative ways of resolving cases in addition to traditional jail sentences, he said.
Some of Willis’ initiatives, including a pretrial diversion program that allows some individuals to enter into community service or restitution rather than be charged, have been described as progressive.
But she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2020 that she sees herself in the middle ground.
“Some prosecutors don’t believe jail should exist,” Willis told the newspaper after she defeated Howard. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t like violent crime. I’ve walked over enough dead bodies to know you have to have prisons.”
“On the other end of the spectrum, you have these people who think everyone should go to jail,” she continued. “I don’t think 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 come at these issues just right.”
Since taking office, she’s cracked down on gang activity. She brought RICO indictments against alleged members of the Bloods gang, the “Drug Rich Gang” as well as the popular rap stars Young Thug and Gunna and other alleged members of Young Slime Life, or YSL.
(Young Thung has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial; Gunna entered what is known as an Alford plea, in which he maintained his innocence but pleaded guilty and acknowledged prosecutors had enough evidence to convict.)
Willis has faced some criticism for using rap lyrics as alleged evidence in her criminal cases, which many have said is discriminatory against artists in the hip-hop community, but she’s defended it: “I think if you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m going to use it,” she told reporters last year.
Taking on Trump
Willis has often described the first time Trump came across her desk.
It was her first day in office as district attorney and airing nonstop on TV was the now infamous call in January 2021 between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump asked Raffensperger to “find” just enough votes to overturn his election loss to Joe Biden in the state.
Eight days later, on Jan. 10, 2021, Willis notified Gov. Brian Kemp that her office had launched an investigation.
Willis told The New York Times earlier this year she had hoped the phone call happened in another jurisdiction but quickly realized it was in her domain.
“I’m stuck with it,” she told the Times.
Since then, Willis has talked with the media about the case — prompting rebuke from Republicans.
Chairman of the Georgia GOP Josh McKoon recently tweeted that “Willis does not even pretend to be impartial as she “invites TV cameras into her office to talk about her bogus investigation.”
Trump has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong and is being persecuted, calling the call with Raffensperger “perfect.” The former president has attacked Willis as a “radical left” prosecutor.
Earlier this week, he released an ad blasting Willis and others who have prosecuted him as the “fraud squad.” Willis issued an internal memo, obtained by ABC News, telling her staff not to respond to the ad and telling them that “this is business, it will never be personal.”
Willis said in late July, after two and a half years of investigation, that the “work is accomplished.”
“We’re ready to go,” she told local station WXIA. She also said increased security measures were being taken ahead of any announcement.
“I would say that if she is anything like the Fani I know, the preparation of this case has been meticulous and the presentation to the grand jury will be very professional,” said Rucker, who worked with Willis on the Atlanta public school case.
“And if this grand jury returns an indictment that charges the former president of the United States with a crime, it’ll be a circumstance of such historical proportions that I can’t imagine any prosecutor anywhere in the country who would have a case of more significance than this one,” Rucker told ABC News. “And she understands what’s at stake.”
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