Who is Fani Willis? Georgia prosecutor takes on new role leading Trump RICO case

The Atlanta prosecutor has taken cheating teachers and a famous rapper to court. Now she faces Donald Trump.

Fani Willis.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

“I did not choose this. I did not choose for Donald Trump to be on my plate,” Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis told Yahoo News last year. But his blatant efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election left her with no choice but to pursue a criminal case against him, she argued.

That effort culminated on Monday night with an indictment against Trump and 18 others on 41 racketeering charges related to the presidential election they allegedly tried to subvert.

“Trump and the other Defendants charged in this Indictment refused to accept that Trump lost,” the indictment charges, “and they knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump.”

The woman behind the indictment could be Trump’s biggest nemesis yet. Willis has taken on teachers, rappers and ordinary criminals. Now she seeks to convict a former occupant of the White House.

Read more on Yahoo News: Trump Has ‘Blatantly Unlawful’ Tantrum About Georgia Grand Jury Witness, via Daily Beast

An education in civil rights

Fani Willis.
Willis, then Fulton County deputy district attorney, at a trial in 2016. (John Bazemore/AP)

Willis was raised by her father, a member of the Black Panthers who later became a celebrated attorney. “Since I was a very little bitty girl, you get dragged to the polls,” she told Yahoo News.

She went to Howard, the prestigious, historically Black university in Washington, D.C., then to Emory in Atlanta for law school. Afterward, she became a prosecutor in the Fulton County district attorney’s office.

Her boss there was Paul Howard Jr., the man she would unseat more than two decades later.

Read more on Yahoo News: How Trump Camp And Allies Allegedly Pursued Nationwide Effort To Breach Voting Machines

The cheating scandal

Fani Willis.
Willis at a 2013 hearing for Atlanta educators who were accused of a cheating conspiracy. (David Tulis/AP)

In 2009, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed “extraordinary gains or drops” in standardized test scores in several city schools. These were not isolated cases, it quickly became clear, but rather a massive, coordinated scheme orchestrated by the city’s top educators.

A state investigation followed, revealing that an astonishing 178 educators were involved in the district-wide cheating scheme, which was enabled by “a culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence.”

Ultimately, only 12 educators, including the by-then-former Superintendent Beverly Hall, went on trial, which began in 2014. Willis tried the case. In its coverage of the proceedings, the New York Times described Willis as making “a lengthy opening statement, peppered with both slangy Southernisms and pointed indignation.”

She would win convictions for 11 of the 12 defendants.

Read more on Yahoo News: America's biggest teacher and principal cheating scandal unfolds in Atlanta, via the Christian Science Monitor

Taking on Young Thug

Fani Willis and members of her legal team.
Willis with members of her team during proceedings to seat a special grand jury to investigate Trump. (Ben Gray/AP)

The cheating case showed that Willis was unafraid to take on powerful, entrenched interests. She got a chance to do so again in 2022, when she indicted 28 members of Young Stoner Life, the rap label run by prominent Atlanta artist Young Thug.

Willis, however, saw YSL as little more than a criminal enterprise, one she said was associated “with the national Bloods gang.” The indictment presented by her office charged that music was secondary to YSL’s operations, which allegedly included “obtaining money, weapons and other property through acts of racketeering activity, including robbery, theft and the unlawful sale and distribution of drugs.”

Her office has cited rap lyrics as evidence, brushing off suggestions that doing so criminalizes the creative act. Courtroom proceedings against Young Thug and his associates are ongoing.

Read more on Yahoo News: Rapper Young Thug to go to trial in gang, racketeering case, via Associated Press

The biggest case of all

Fani Willis.
Willis at a news conference on Monday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Willis took office one day after Trump made his infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a desperate — and possibly illegal — attempt to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat at Joe Biden’s hands the previous November.

“My very first day in this office — in that conference room, it’s all over the TV,” she later told the Times.

She intends to use the same racketeering laws that she charged the cheating teachers and Young Thug with violating to prosecute the case against Trump. The statutes, known as RICO, tend to be used against organized crime enterprises.

As legal scholar Clark Cunningham of Georgia State explained to ABC News, framing the case as a conspiracy acknowledges its inherent complexity: "What a RICO prosecution does is it takes a lot of different pieces, odd shapes, different colors that may not seem to have any relationship with each other. If the prosecution is successful, the jury says, 'Oh my God, I see the picture. ... I see a vast conspiracy here.'"

Trump is also facing several other state and federal indictments. As with those cases, he has complained that he is the target of selective prosecution intended to keep him out of the White House, as he is now the frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination.

At a rally last week, he baselessly accused Willis of having an affair with a gang member.

Read more on Yahoo News: How Fani Willis oversaw what might be the most sprawling legal case against Donald Trump