Now she could be facing a much bigger case: the potential prosecution of a former president. Considering the known facts and Willis’s demonstrated skill at presenting juries with sprawling conspiracy cases, a lengthy RICO trial is a distinct possibility. But it’s an approach she would be choosing in the highest-pressure context imaginable — one that would require both a huge investment of her office’s resources and a political appetite for a good deal of backlash and spectacle.
If Willis has ambitions beyond the office of the Fulton County district attorney, she hasn’t spoken publicly about them. From a political standpoint, her only real misstep thus far has been hosting a fund-raiser last summer for Charlie Bailey, a former colleague at the D.A.’s office who was running for lieutenant governor. Bailey’s Republican opponent, Burt Jones, was one of 16 fake Trump electors Willis’s office was investigating, and the fund-raiser drew a sharp rebuke from Judge Robert McBurney of the Fulton County Superior Court — the same judge tasked with deciding whether to make public the special grand jury’s report — who called it a “what are you thinking” moment that created “horrific” optics and disqualified Willis from proceeding with her investigation of Jones.
There was a scenario in which a Democrat like Willis, with her tough-as-nails messaging on crime, could have been not entirely unlike Governor Deal before her, better positioned to deliver on some reforms the left wing of the party has been fighting for — especially considering how, over the past year, reformists have experienced backlashes in places like San Francisco and New York. Kim Jackson, the chaplain at the Brooks protests, has since been elected to the State Senate, and she told me she supported Willis with a sense of excitement: A Black woman running on an anti-death-penalty platform seemed about as progressive as she could hope for. But three months into Willis’s tenure, a horrific mass shooting occurred at multiple spas in and around Atlanta, leaving eight dead, mostly Asian women, in what appeared to be a hate crime. Not long after, Willis announced that she would seek the death penalty for the accused shooter. And though Willis campaigned on pretrial diversion in lieu of prison time as one of her major reform issues, a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union on overcrowded and unsafe conditions at the Fulton County Jail cited insufficient use of diversion and a failure to indict arrested individuals in a timely manner as two major factors.
Willis told me the report was “a joke” and offered several arguments for why the data was flawed. “We’ve probably got 25 people in Fulton County Jail on a misdemeanor, and they’re there for 48 hours,” she said. “Unfortunately,” she added, “a lot of people with crimes that I think a regular citizen would say, ‘Hey, they need to stay in jail, they burglarized my house’ — that’s not even the kind of people that stay in jail here. People are given bail.”
But the morning after we spoke, I sat in the back of a courtroom where the judge was holding a series of preliminary hearings for jail inmates, all Black men, who had been arrested and held since mid-July. One, accused of stealing equipment from a landscaping truck, had been in jail for 112 days; another, accused of smashing storefront windows, had been locked up for 116. It turned out that the initial police report had overestimated the amount of damage, presenting the crime as a felony rather than what it actually was, a misdemeanor.
Nearly two years into Willis’s term, “I give her all the positive marks for going after President Trump,” Jackson told me. “I think it’s a courageous move. And I think it’s the right move.” She paused. “Yeah, that’s my praise.” And her criticism? Jackson sighed and said Willis had come to the State Senate to make a presentation about public safety, talking about gangs and other crime. Jackson had studied local crime statistics during the pandemic, however, and found a more complicated picture: murders up, other major crimes down. As Willis spoke, “I’m literally looking at the statistics — like, they’re on my desk right in front of me,” Jackson recounted. “So I just struggled with that,” she said. “I mean, I understand what it is to be a politician. And I understand that we have to respond to public pressure. But I don’t think we have to add fuel to the fire. And there have been times — I’m trying to be very careful here, because I respect her — but there have been times in which I felt like she added fuel to a fire that we could have easily put out.”
The N.A.A.C.P.’s Griggs, who has known Willis since he was an undergraduate and working alongside her in the city solicitor’s office, calls her “a great lawyer, a consummate prosecutor,” but continues, “I just think that, you know, sometimes she’s a little too gung ho. And I think that justice is somewhere in the middle.” We met in his law office, and when I brought up Trump, Griggs pulled a book from his shelf and read aloud from Title 21, the state elections law, which bars “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud.” If you played the recording of Trump’s phone conversation to a grand jury and then read the state codes, Griggs told me, “they will indict him.” Griggs said it was interesting to find himself, in this case, on the “other side of the ‘v.’” — meaning, on the side of the prosecution rather than the defense. He didn’t say if this particular prosecutor gave him hope, but he sounded upbeat as he noted that the former president, if indicted, would receive his due process “not on Fox News, not on his Truth Social, but in a Georgia courtroom.”
Mark Binelli is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the opera director Yuval Sharon, and before that about the tangled legal aftermath of a deadly Waco, Texas, biker brawl. Nydia Blas is an Atlanta-based visual artist who is interested in storytelling through a Black female perspective. She was named one of The British Journal of Photography’s Ones to Watch in 2019.