Atlanta’s First Black Female District Attorney Is at the Center of America's Converging Crises

Atlanta’s First Black Female District Attorney Is at the Center of America's Converging Crises

September 28, 2021

by Janell Ross | Time Inc. | September 28, 2021

So much of what is ugly and unhinged about America can be seen in the eyes of a mother whose 8-year-old is dead. But, on a Tuesday in August, at Atlanta’s downtown courthouse, that’s where Fulton County, Ga.’s district attorney, Fani Willis, is looking. She’s meeting with Charmaine Turner and Secoriey Williamson, the parents of Secoriea Turner, a chubby-cheeked Black girl with generous eyebrows, who liked to make TikTok dance videos and throw up peace signs in candid pictures. A bullet pierced her back and killed her last year after she attended a Fourth of July fireworks show.

Secoriea’s killing was random, but part of a larger story. On June 12, 2020, an Atlanta police officer fatally shot Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot of a Wendy’s, setting off protests. By Independence Day, armed men—whom Willis takes pains to distinguish from protesters—had erected barricades nearby. It has since become public knowledge that city officials appear to have directed police not to intervene right away. Secoriea and her mother were in a Jeep that drove past the barricades, prompting multiple people to open fire. The family later put up a billboard imploring the public for information about her killers. But there have been no answers for more than a year.

“Mr. Williamson and Ms. Turner, I—your daughter’s life is everything, is everything, in this office,” Willis says. Charmaine Turner’s eyes, the only things visible above her blue surgical mask, have become deep pools. She looks as if a strong blast from an AC vent could displace her entirely. Williamson’s head, at points in his hands, is now craned forward. He’ll soon start asking questions. “And there’s no point for me to sit in this chair if we can’t do things that keep children safe.”

Charmaine Turner, mother of Secoriea Turner, is surrounded by her sons and Secoriea's father, Secoriey Williamson, while reciting a poem during the home-going service for Secoriea at New Calvary Missionary Church on July 15, 2020. Authorities have charged a suspect with felony murder and aggravated assault in a shooting that killed the 8-year-old girl near the site of an earlier police shooting.
Charmaine Turner, mother of Secoriea Turner, is surrounded by her sons and Secoriea's father, Secoriey Williamson, while reciting a poem during the home-going service for Secoriea at New Calvary Missionary Church on July 15, 2020. Authorities have charged a suspect with felony murder and aggravated assault in a shooting that killed the 8-year-old girl near the site of an earlier police shooting.

Willis delivers her news. She’s about to ask a grand jury to indict one man on charges of murder. She’ll also ask a grand jury to indict another man for various gang activities that under Georgia law could produce a 400-year sentence. Security footage from nearby businesses—an increasingly common factor in prosecutors’ decisions these days—is clear enough to see muzzle fire and read T-shirts worn by people at and near the scene. More defendants and charges could follow.

This is the practical and some might say political work that occupies any chief prosecutor of a major city. But the conversation Willis just led with Turner’s parents points to the enormity and gravity of the tasks in the Fulton County DA’s inbox. Murders in Atlanta and almost every other major U.S. city have surged. In Atlanta, homicides rose more than 60% in 2020, hitting 157 people killed. The increase in crime has not slowed this year. By mid September, the city’s homicide tally had reached 113.

But if big-city prosecutors everywhere are under pressure to reduce and punish crime, even as limiting imprisonment has just gained overwhelming public support and some degree of legal traction, Willis’ burdens are larger than average. She’s the first Black woman to ever serve as Fulton County’s chief prosecutor, with a mandate to dispense justice in a city known as the “cradle of the American civil rights movement,” the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. Adding to the pressure: as she juggles a prosecution backlog and her campaign promises to constituents, she does so under the spotlight of two cases that have drawn the nation’s eyes to her office.

They include a series of shootings in Atlanta-area spas for which a man steeped in white Evangelical culture stands accused of shooting and killing eight people, six of them Asian women. The case—an alleged capital murder in which Willis will seek the death penalty, despite an earlier professed stance against it—will also provide the first test of Georgia’s still new hate-crimes law. The indictment is scheduled to be read on Tuesday, at Long’s next court appearance.

On top of all that, in the court of public opinion, Willis may be the American prosecutor with the strongest criminal case against former President Donald Trump, after Trump made a recorded phone call imploring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes that would win Trump that state’s 16 electoral college votes. That creates its own pressure. The case could even lead to an indictment for Trump himself—and while election-related prosecutions are already rare in the United States, criminal prosecution of an ex-president would be unprecedented. (The consensus among constitutional scholars is clear, says Fred Smith Jr., who teaches constitutional law at Emory University Law School: yes, it has never happened before, but such a case would be constitutional.) Since the 2020 election, Trump supporters have dispatched such a high volume of threats that, while the Fulton County District Attorney has long had a protection detail, the group of officers protecting Willis is larger and continuous. When Willis goes to dinner or does some shopping or hits the gym before sunrise, her security detail is there.

“Frightened?” Willis asks, when I inquire about coping with the monumental work before her. She is one of those boss ladies who is small in stature but big in presence, a commander armed with high standards, an easy laugh and a knack for sustained eye contact. People in her office call her “Madam DA,” or simply “Madam.” When in the room with Willis, one must be able to joke, but also ready to answer questions—lots of them.

“No,” she says. She stops smiling.

“Every human being is entitled to some dignity, [but it] cuts both ways. Every person is subjected to the law,” she says. “[The election investigation] seems to be exciting to the rest of the world…But the reality is this. I do cases the same all the time. I’m going to look at the facts when the evidence is here. I’m going to see if those facts violate that law and if they do, we gon’ charge you.”

Willis, surrounded by staff, tours the outdoor area of a building in South Fulton County that needs to raise money so that it may be used for diversion and alternative punishment programs.

Willis, surrounded by staff, tours the outdoor area of a building in South Fulton County that needs to raise money so that it may be used for diversion and alternative punishment programs. Lynsey Weatherspoon for TIME

A surge in crime
Willis spends much of the two days after her meeting with Secoriea Turner’s parents inside a shopping-center meeting space in Sandy Springs, an Atlanta suburb. She has invited representatives from every law enforcement agency in Fulton County to a gathering dubbed Full Force Fulton. There are so many captains, lieutenants, sheriffs and police chiefs descending that people dressed in scrubs stand in the parking lot to guard the spaces allotted to a nearby dentist’s office whose banner advertises “free laughing gas.”

Social scientists are still trying to explain why, after reaching a peak in the early 1990s, crime then declined across the U.S. to historic lows. Violent crimes began rising in 2014. Then came the global pandemic, and a sustained and dramatic increase in violent crime across the country, the precise causes of which experts disagree upon.

“I would love to talk to not lawyers, but psychologists and therapists about it,” Willis tells me. “A large portion of it is gangs and gang wars and making money in drugs. But we also have something deeper going on, just some real sick stuff. And to have both at the same time, we’re in a really bad place.”

A few weeks before I arrived in Atlanta, a bartender took her dog for a walk in one of the city’s most celebrated parks in the early morning hours after she finished her shift. Her partner discovered her there hours later, stabbed to death. The woman’s pit bull had also been felled by a knife. Then, as Willis and I talk one morning, local television broadcasts the terrifying story of a woman who was followed home and, according to a witness, forced into a vehicle at gunpoint. The woman, also a bartender, was found dead a few hours later, raped and then shot multiple times, Willis tells me. Police do not believe the two crimes are connected.

“I have…seen a lot of evil, much more evil than most people will ever have to see,” Willis says. “I have children, I have family. I have myself and would like to live. But I am not in a panic.”

Full Force Fulton centers largely on one thing: gangs. Gangs generate, by one GBI estimate, as much as 90% of all violent crime in the state, says Michael Carlson, executive district attorney, of the Fulton DA’s major crimes division, a white man with a Peach-State accent who helped train Willis in her baby prosecutor years. Recently, Atlanta has been home to hybrid gangs; yes, in the “city too busy to hate,” Crips and Bloods cooperate to commit crimes. One such group has even dubbed itself “America,” or “Famerica,” displaying the U.S. flag as its emblem because it has both red and blue parts. Carlson drafted Georgia’s gang-activities law that will be used in the Turner murder and other cases, known as 16-15-4s. Critics of Georgia’s gang law, one of the toughest if not the toughest in the nation, say it also criminalizes association with people in gangs along with what may be misguided, youthful mimicry. Carlson tells me the law has stood up to appeals court challenges 59 times.

At the meeting, Willis’ staff make the case for the strength and utility of 16-15-4, the types of evidence needed and how details—a victim’s name on case documents; footage from cell phones and the growing number of security cameras on nearby homes and businesses—are proving critical in court. We’ve been here before. America’s response to rising crime in the 1980s intensified support for more police and a focus on low-level and gang offenders, as well as mass incarceration in the 1990s. One of the legislative architects of that approach was then Senator Joe Biden. Those decisions twisted American life in ways that don’t fit neatly into a local news headline. When I ask if the gang focus runs counter to progressive law enforcement, Carlson tells me that 16-15-4 work is a way to more surgically target those directly involved in violent crime.

“I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” Willis says. “I do have an understanding that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, we cannot prosecute our way out of this problem, so we have to find other things to do. But don’t ever mistake my words. I have [secured from courts] more life sentences than most people you know and I don’t lose any sleep at night about it. There are some people who need to be put in prison for the rest of their days.”

Striking the balance
Willis is far from the first prosecutor to confront that duality. In the last decade, around the country, a wave of prosecutors have been elected who promised to operate in a more progressive fashion, one cognizant of that past, says Mark Godsey, author of Blind Justice, a book that explores the culture of prosecutor’s offices. Willis ran on one of these platforms and is a Democrat.

But many of these same self-identified progressive candidates, when elected, find themselves surrounded by long-term prosecutors working in their offices, says Godsey, who is also a Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati and Director of the Ohio Innocence Project. Those people are, more often than not, determined to do things the old way.

Willis says there were “50 to 60 people” whom she either fired or otherwise encouraged to move on “for not doing what they needed to do,” wanting to do things the old way even after she took office or lacking the necessary experience to do it right. Some of them worked in the public integrity unit, the office that investigates and prosecutes public officials—from police officers to former presidents—and abuses of power. And after a neighboring county prosecutor gave Robert Aaron Long, the spa-shooting suspect, a no-death-penalty deal for pleading guilty, Willis’s office was left alone to prosecute him at a public trial. In doing so she has reversed a campaign promise not to seek the death penalty.

“In my experience when somebody is a lifelong prosecutor and they run on a progressive platform, they don’t tend to stick to it as long as somebody who really comes from an outside perspective” says Godsey. “They grew up in that culture as well so they sort of come from that mentality.”

“The decisions I made were with the complete support of the families,” Willis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few weeks after my visit when Long made the first of what are likely to be many appearances in a Fulton County courtroom. Willis came to the job with the distinction—and baggage—of having been the prosecutor assigned to take on Atlanta teachers in a 2015 standardized-test cheating scandal. The convictions brought Willis her first national news coverage but some Atlantans, many of them Black, still feel the prosecutions were unfair. That history has given her critics reason to fear that her other progressive priorities will also transform now that she is the district attorney. For example, in early August, Willis informed another family that no charges would be pursued in the 2017 case in which Deaundre Phillips, 24, was killed by an Atlanta police officer whose story appears to conflict with what was captured on tape.

“After the Phillips case, I’ve lost hope,” says L. Chris Stewart, a Black Atlanta personal-injury and civil rights lawyer who is representing Phillips and his family. “So, we’ll be talking to the Justice Department. But it’s her choice. You know, that’s the power of the district attorney.”

Stewart also notes that Willis has successfully asked the state’s attorney general (and when that failed, courts) to reassign some police cases to a special prosecutor, rather than dealing with them herself. She has said her predecessor may have charged officers in one case too quickly and that staff still in her office who did that work now have active conflicts of interest.

And then there’s the matter of a July 25, Alpharetta, Ga., case in which a police officer appears in footage to have set his dog on a mentally ill, handcuffed and unarmed man. An internal Alpharetta PD investigation cleared the officers involved by Aug. 5, and police have initiated the process of filing felony charges against the man bitten by the police dog. Willis has been asked to drop them, but hasn’t yet.

“Literally a whole mess,” says Scotty Smart, an Black activist in Atlanta associated with a group known as The Change Creators. “Literally a wife telling a man [police officer] he’s having a mental health breakdown and the officer proceeds to go get his dog. That’s not how you respond to a person in a mental health crisis.”

Smart says it’s a bit too early to reach conclusions about Willis, but people in his circle are watching to see how she balances calls for crime reduction with civil rights and the need for reasonable second chances. “It’s just a lot of people on the fence…Our level of expectation is really low, unfortunately, because we’re surprised when we get transparency and accountability.“

Despite Stewart’s and Smart’s misgivings, there have also been Willis decisions that have given reform-minded Atlantans cause to hope. Yes, she is seeking the death penalty in the spa shootings case. But, she will seek it while prosecuting the first case under the state’s new 2020 hate crimes law, which was passed after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. If Long is convicted, she will have clarified the role racial and gender stereotypes played in Long’s alleged rampage, even though officials in neighboring Cherokee County have said or implied they could not prove the role that bias played in the crimes. And the same week that she informed Phillips’ family there would be no Fulton County case, she told another family that she planned to begin the process of pursuing a criminal case against officers involved in the death of Jamarion Robinson, 26, who died in 2016. The case’s likely difficulty—those who shot Robinson 76 times were a mix of U.S. Marshals and local officers who had been deputized as federal marshals, and there is no tape—has not deterred her.

There are also indications that Willis is a prosecutor willing to acknowledge that sometimes the criminal justice system gets it wrong. And, she acknowledges in more than one of our conversations, that happens in a disproportionate way to Black and Latino defendants.

On a Saturday morning during my visit, Willis walks over to Fulton County Government Center attend a record-restriction event, during which people with certain low-level criminal convictions, or with charges that prosecutors decided they could not try, may be able have their records altered so that potential employers and landlords can no longer see the charges. Across the country the unemployment rate among those with felony convictions sat around 27%, according to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative analysis. People who can afford private lawyers and those who have time to navigate this paperwork-dense process on their own have long had the option to have their records restricted, but many of the people in this room have not. Willis tells them to spread the word to others the option exists and take note of which public officials are here, making this possible, in a non-election year. By 11:34 am, 35 peoples’ records have been restricted, Willis tells the audience, setting off a round of applause. Almost everyone waiting for their turn at possible record restriction is Black.

Willis is on the verge of setting up a diversion and drug-treatment program—an alternative to charging people with crimes—and has supercharged a conviction integrity unit created by her predecessor, Paul Howard. In the first eight months of Willis’ tenure, two convictions have been overturned and 10 sentences reduced. Under Howard, the unit overturned just one conviction, in a case that predated Howard’s time in office.

A new conviction integrity unit oversight board, installed in August, will also play a role. One member of the board is the victim of a violent home invasion during which he was nearly killed by teens whom he later forgave. One member is a pastor and another an entertainment business owner and a board member of several nonprofits. Three others are lawyers in private practice and another is a law professor at the University of Georgia.These are people who will have an opinion and voice it. There’s nothing else in this for them, no compensation of any kind.

“My only charge to each of you is always do what is right,” Willis tells them. “I’ll worry about the politics on the back end.”

Born for the courtroom
The daughter of a former Black Panther who recently retired as a criminal defense lawyer, the Inglewood, Calif.-born Willis would go along when her father went to court on Saturday mornings. The judge who oversaw the Saturday courtroom, an older white man, was, according to Willis, known to be mean. But each week, he had Willis, too young to stay home alone or to hear the details her father needed to discuss with clients, sit next to him on the elevated dais, the two whispering back and forth. One day, Willis’ father asked her what on earth they talked about.

“I said, ‘He’s asking me, Should they go home or should they go to the back?’” Willis says with glee.

The back meant jail. One day after court, the judge asked Willis what she wanted to do when she grew up. When she said she wanted to be a judge, he told her she would first have to become a lawyer, a person who reads a lot and explains the law. Willis told him she could read, so she could certainly do that.

“And I’ve never wanted to be anything else,” Willis says.

When it was time for college, her father announced that his money would pay for a historically black college or university (HBCU). She picked Howard University, the school that would also produce future prosecutor and Vice President Kamala Harris. Freaknik, an annual Atlanta spring break celebration attended mostly by HBCU students, left Willis with Atlanta memories that still make her chuckle, and Emory University’s law school remains a top-ranking, prestigious school, so after college she ended up in Georgia. On the day she took the bar exam, Willis spotted a man working an extra job as a videographer.

“He had some really nice legs,” Willis says smiling, then laughing. “It produced me two beautiful girls. So that’s what made me decide to stay in Atlanta. I graduated [Emory] in May. I was married by November.”

Done with law school in 1996, Willis worked in a small law firm where Atlanta’s current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was also a young lawyer, before going into private practice. After she gave birth to her daughters, Willis, wanting stability, went to work for the city solicitor, and soon joined the district attorney’s office. She worked for Paul Howard for the next 16 years. When she was giving a closing argument, word would spread around the courthouse, three different Atlanta lawyers told me. People would come watch.

After she and her husband divorced in 2005, Willis continued climbing, eventually serving as chief deputy DA, before returning to private practice in 2018. That same year, she ran unsuccessfully for a Superior Court Judge seat. Willis was crestfallen at her loss. A consultant had told her she could not beat a conservative white man, the picture—like that judge from her childhood—of what many voters think of when they hear the word judge. She hadn’t believed him, but he had been right.

Back in private practice, Willis soon was named Chief Municipal Court Judge for the City of South Fulton in 2019. Between the two jobs, she was bringing in about $300,000 in income, more than she’d ever earned. Her daughters could have new bags without much contemplation, she says. Life was good. So, when she started to hear from people who were concerned about things going on in the DA’s office, people asking her to run for Fulton County DA in 2020, at first she resisted. Willis’ daughters didn’t want her to run. Not again.

But Willis felt called. This was a race she could run, and win—and that would allow her to address some of the things the callers and so many other people in Fulton County were worried about, she says.

Willis was running against her longtime boss, Paul Howard, who in 1997 was the first Black person to become a district attorney in Georgia. Even now, Willis, who keeps a photo of Howard handing her an award on a wall in the office, describes her former boss as “brilliant.” To Willis, Howard’s various troubles, including alleged sexual harrassment, discrimination and financial malfeasance that emerged toward the end of his public career, are bewildering. (Howard, who declined to comment for this article, has questioned the timing of the suits, some filed within two months of the election, and generally denied their claims. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an inquiry into the financial matter.)

Howard campaigned on a record of reducing violent crime by 70% and cutting the jail population in half over his tenure, but 2020 was a year in which crime very obviously rose. During the campaign, Howard also elevated questions, full of racial subtext, about what Willis’ endorsement by a police union could mean for majority Black Atlanta.

But, last August, Willis trounced Howard.

“I’m in love with this job,” Willis says. “…It’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Not very good domestically. I can’t cook. But I am a very good prosecutor.”

The big case
In January, days after taking office, Willis walked into the courthouse for what she’d planned as an assessment day. There, she and some of her staff surveyed what she describes as rooms nearly filled to the ceiling with files and boxes and doors that could hardly be opened, torn carpet and a backlog of more than 25,000 cases stretching back to 2016. In the background, CNN blared news first reported by the Washington Post, of a call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican. In it, Trump asked Raffensperger to recalculate the state’s vote tally. Find 11,780 votes, Trump said—one vote more than the number by which Trump lost Georgia to Biden.

Willis says she and others stopped what they were doing and had one of those, Wait. What in the hell moments. There was also a moment, she says, where she wondered if the problem, a possible crime, might fall in some other jurisdiction. She may have even hoped for that, Willis says, chuckling. But within 10 minutes she knew. Over the next few days, as tape of the call emerged, others made it clear they did too. The case was hers.

“It was clear to me that I’m going to have to open an investigation…I knew that was a possible violation of the law,” she says.

Willis has since made some key hires—Carlson, who has expertise in evidence and coordinated criminal conduct, and John Floyd, a lawyer in private practice who worked with Willis on the school cheating trial and is an expert in Georgia’s RICO law—that have been viewed as signs the investigation is ramping up. She and everyone else in the office are tight-lipped about the election investigation. It’s “ongoing” and “underway,” Willis says and does not fill in any awkward silence that follows.

The lawyers and investigators are gathering information from those willing to volunteer it. She’s still hiring outside experts. The next step is subpoenas for those who aren’t cooperative. The timeline is unclear.

This much is: In a period characterized by the extreme, Trump, who has falsely claimed that various forms of election fraud have taken place on the Democratic side, could experience the extreme irony of a first-of-its-kind prosecution. No former president has ever been charged with a crime, an election-related crime at that. And now Willis’ team is interrogating Trump’s Jan. 2 call with Raffensperger as one element of a conspiratorial battering ram taken to American democracy, stretching from surveillance of election workers—here in Fulton County, but also in mostly Black and Latino cities like Phoenix, Detroit and Philadelphia—all the way through the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol.

To Jon Grinspan, curator of political and military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, this moment is comparable to the inflection point that faced the U.S. after the Civil War, when, as those in power opted for rapid reconciliation, not even rebel leaders faced treason charges.

“Usually the process in the past has been to say bygones be bygones,” says Grinspan, “but you can make a really strong case that not prosecuting any of those Confederates or letting them back into the government gave us the last 150 years of Lost Cause, white supremacy, not dealing with past issues. So I’m not saying what should happen with Trump, but when people say, ‘Oh, we don’t have a precedent for this,’ that doesn’t mean it was the greatest decision.”

And, notes Gerald A. Griggs, vice president of the Atlanta NAACP and a lawyer who is defending both the man attacked by the police dog in Alpharetta and a lawmaker arrested while protesting Georgia’s recent voting restrictions law, Atlantans are watching—perhaps none more closely than Black people in the area. The same people who might worry most about her approach to cases involving police officers, the same people who might worry about their votes being discounted or overruled, “are also concerned at the amount of time that it has taken to charge the [former] President of the United States for violating two code sections that are quite clear in Georgia law from that phone call,” he says. “The purpose of the prosecutor’s office in Fulton County is to seek justice. It’s not to be pro-police, anti-police. It should be pro-justice.”

Yet a few weeks before my Atlanta visit, an online publication pushed out a story that all but declared Willis was moving in water that’s too deep. There’s too much crime in Atlanta, the story said, for Willis to investigate or prosecute Trump.

Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, a lawyer and former Obama Administration appointee who has known Willis since the early 2000s and who in 2005 was the first Black person and woman elected District Attorney in nearby DeKalb County, has seen that kind of thing intimated all year. Some of it, Keyes Fleming attributes to the reality that Willis herself is rare. A 2019 study produced by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 73% of all district attorneys were white men. Just 2% were, like Willis, women of color. There are people who fundamentally believe a Black woman is not qualified or capable of doing this job. Some of that, Keyes Fleming ties to the importance of the election investigation and some people’s strange notions of Fulton County, home of 1.06 million residents, as a Southern backwater.

“Those that underestimate Fani’s ability to respond to her constituents will be…,” says Fleming, pausing to think of the right term. “Those that underestimate her will be proven wrong.”

Inside Willis’ office, the space where she works on all the various challenges that belong to the Fulton County DA, there’s a framed bit of scripture, paraphrased from the book of Esther, which tells the story of a woman called to unexpected and critical duty. It was a gift from a friend who died of cancer earlier this year. At one point, as I watched Willis address her senior staff at a training event, her voice broke with emotion as she described it. Willis doesn’t explain the religious reference, but she tells her staff what the sign says: “Perhaps you were born for such a time as this.”

—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Mariah Espada