Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis brings a new approach to prosecuting criminals and delivering justice
Fani Willis made history by becoming the first woman to be elected as the District Attorney of Fulton County. The long-time resident of South Fulton sat down with South Atlanta Magazine recently to discuss her election, her hopes for the future, and her almost non-existent private life.
On her African name: Fani Taifa
Fani means prosperous. Taifa means people. It means you come from a prosperous people. I don’t like to think of it as prosperity in the way most people think of prosperity which is just financial wealth but just prosperity in terms of values and things of that nature. Prosperous people is what it stands for.
What does she bring to the judicial system?
Not just me but me and my team, my administration, has brought a lot of light to the judicial system. I think the first thing we found when we came here was something we knew: The morale of the staff would be broken. And if your staff is not operating in a way that they are proud of the organization they represent, and that they are supported and are confident, then it is a problem.
I brought in 129 staff members new because I got new positions. But I also let go of some of the old staff that I did not think were aligned with the values of the new administration. And so, we’ve hired over 200 people and those people bring light to this office every single day.
We also found that relationships with the Police Department were broken and so we have basically healed those relationships by just having honest and very transparent conversations about what we expected from them. We’ve changed the entire way that we charge cases now, which I believe gives the community confidence in us. Instead of just everything the police send, we charge. We actually go back and do something called “collect evidence” and investigate and make sure that we have the evidence so we make proper charging decisions. Which is fairer to the victims, because we put together a great case for them, but it is also fairer to those people that are charged so we are not wrongly charging people.
Her historic election shows the times they are a changing
I’m very proud to be the first woman in this office but I hope to not be last. I think that a woman can do a very good job here and this is a very, very important seat. The reality is Fulton County and Atlanta is the largest jurisdiction in the state of Georgia. I have over a million constituents that are relying on us to bring them justice and I think that it is important that they have someone here that can listen, as women so often do, can nurture, but can also hold you accountable.
Things are changing. Women are a great part of the bar. I hope that when women see me they know … with a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices, that I will not be the last.
I can’t tell you how often I’ll go to meetings that are very important; that they decide the fate of Georgians. And too often, when I go, I’m the only woman in the room. Often, I’m the only black person in the room. Why, in 2022, am I in the room with the governor and the head of multiple state agencies and we’re talking about crime that impacts all of us, and I sit there alone?
So, I hope that as women see me, they’ll make sure that I’m not sitting alone next year or the year after. And that will continue to be present at the table ’cause if you’re not at the table then you can’t impact society.
I’m living a dream. I work very hard sometimes. It might seem like a nightmare when I’m on day five of a 16-hour day, but God has really blessed me to be able to stand here. But you and I both know as a person of color this would not have been possible just 30 years ago. And as a woman?
She decided to run for DA after going up to the mountain
When she was approached by various people to run for District Attorney, she needed a higher helping hand because she would have to give up her lucrative private practice. She went to stay in the north Georgia mountains to think it over.
I’m crying ’cause I have all of this pressure. I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do. But I went up there and I don’t know, I (thought) God would come sit on the bed with me. Tell me something about what I’m supposed to do with my life.
This is going to be a huge financial hit, and I just took a financial hit two years ago. I am probably within two miles from my house … very, very close to my home. I don’t know what to do. I haven’t heard anything. I’ve gone to the mountain (and it was) basically a waste of time. So, I’m crying and the phone rings. It’s my mentor. … And he said, “You might as well do it.”
It was as if a peace came over me. It was as if God was saying, “Listen, didn’t I tell you this is what you’re supposed to do?”
But it was like that last shake for your hard-headed child. Once I made the decision on that phone call, I was at peace with it. And here I sit.
How her father and a crotchety old judge got her on the path to being a lawyer
Fani Willis was raised by a single father, John Clifford Floyd, a former Black Panther in Los Angeles, and a celebrated defense attorney in Washington, D.C.
One of the first things that my father constantly tells me is that everyone is entitled to dignity. And so that is something that I’ve tried to pass down. It is something that I impugn upon my staff. Everyone that we meet is not going to have the same education as us; They’re not going to have the same opportunities as us; the same in life experience, but they still have value. So that’s something I hope that I’ve imparted on my children. It is something that I demand of my staff. So that’s a lesson that he’s taught me that I hope to teach everyone I come in contact with.
I was about nine years old. I was being raised by a single dad. Our routine would be that on Saturday I would go to the hairdresser. But that would be after court. So, you could imagine my hair is a mess ’cause now I’ve gone a whole week. So, I would go into this courtroom with jeans and dirty sneakers and really raggedy hair. What that judge saw was that my father was having this dilemma of having to sit in the courtroom and represent his client, but then what do you do with this little girl in a public space? So, what that judge did was show me kindness. One day, I think, intuitively, seeing that struggle of my father, he invited me up to the bench. My father said he was kind of known for being like a mean crotchety judge. He was whispering in my ear.
After court my father asked me, “What were y’all talking about?”
And I said, “Oh, he asked me should they go home or should they go to the back?” And he was letting me decide, or at least this little nine-year old thought she was deciding, the fate of those people that came before them. So, at nine years old I told my dad I was going to be a judge.
He said, “Well, to be a judge you have to be a lawyer.”
So, in the words of a nine-year old, I asked him, “What does a lawyer do?”
He says, “A lawyer reads and he explains.”
I said, “Well, I can read.”
So, from that moment on my destiny was set. I’ve never wanted to do anything but what I had the honor of doing here.
Her father was arrested so many times he can’t even keep count
My father was a Black Panther. That was before he went to law school but kind of post college. And so, yes, it’s something in our history I’m very proud of. He would come back here to the South and other places. In fact, his experiences of Georgia are that of the South. So, he’s kind of amazed as what he sees today.
My father will tell you that he’s been arrested so many times that he couldn’t even tell you … He could tell you the states but not how many times. He told me when he was taking the bar that was one of the questions they asked is that “have you ever been arrested before?” He said, “Yeah, but I don’t, you know, want to lie on this application. So, I’ll just tell you these are the states, you’ll have to research them.”
But the thing about my father’s experience that has touched me so much is he talks about being a very young man being arrested all of those times. That it was always white lawyers that would come to get them out of jail. That there were really no black lawyers that the movement would call to help them. He never talked about negativity in those people that arrested him wrongly but the goodness in those lawyers who would come to help them. I think that goes to that lesson of everyone has some dignity. Those Caucasian lawyers saw value in him and his peers. They believed in what they were doing. And it is what ultimately lead my father to stop being a college professor, you know, in the movement, and go to law school.
Now my father was criminal defense lawyer. So, I tell people that criminal defendants bought me a very good education and a very privileged life. I had the ability to go to school to do things. But those core values that make you fight for people, they’re present in me. You know, we all stand on someone shoulders and I stand on my father’s shoulders.
How investigating President Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensburger generates hate calls and emails
Let me tell you this: I don’t even look at all of that those things. It just depends on what is going on as to what the volume of those calls are. What I can tell you is that there is always an uptick if I do press. I remember I went on MSNBC and they just asked very general questions. But the fact that I was doing that it made us have to put multiple people on the phone. It’s very upsetting sometimes to my staff. It, of course, makes me have to have extra securities, which is just really an infraction of my privacy.
But the reality is they are a waste of time. I took an oath. Maybe it sounds very idealistic but I truly believe that all men and women are equal before the law. That makes you can equally be held accountable but it also means you also title to a good investigation dignity.
That call came my first day in office. on the Monday when I was walking into this office for the first time as the elected DA all over the news waves was that call. And it took about 40 minutes to recognize that that was going to be in my jurisdiction.
I’ve doubled up my security. I’m very cautious in the way that I move. You know it does cause strain in relationships because I can’t go hang out with my girlfriends and have dinner or go on a date or do those kind of things without having people around. But to whom much is given much is required. I truly believe God personally selected me here for this moment in time. And I’m going to do the job that I’m blessed to be able to do.
My father has told me since I was a very itty-bitty child that you are special, beautiful, you are smart, you can be and do anything you want to be. That’s the voice that I hear. What they call (me) is really not very relevant.
Sometimes, my deputy executive assistant – so very sweet southern belle – she’ll be so upset ’cause they’ve called and they said something really nasty about me.
I’ll be like, “Listen here, we have a luncheon today. What did you order for the mayor?”
She’ll say, “That’s what you’re thinking about?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m thinking about. What do I care what they’re saying?”
It just amazes her. I just don’t let them get in my head.
On starting an LGBTQ Advisory Board
A horrific case of two young gay men who had a pot of boiling water thrown on them prompted the young prosecutor to begin advocating for a Hate Crime Bill in Georgia. It finally passed the legislature in 2020. As DA, she recently instituted a LGBTQ Advisory Board.
I’m really, really proud of this. We have started an Advisory Board, from what I know, we’re the first district attorney’s office to do this. And what it is specifically to do is to deal with crimes that occur against people just because of who they decide to love; what their sexuality is. We’ve got a lot of great leaders and then just regular community people that think that this issue is important. they are going to be here to devise us to make sure that we are treating those cases appropriately.
We were able to wear one of seven places in the United States to actually gain a grant. So, I’m going to have a victim witness advocate that their entire job is to make sure that this community is treated well; knows that they have a friend in the district attorney’s office.
I’m a huge advocate for the LGBTQ community. It is something that is dear to me. I actually partnered with Republicans … to try to get a hate bill in Georgia because I thought that it was important. We had a Republican that was putting it forward. It failed. But, guess what happened just a few years later, we got a hate bill passed in Georgia. I am excited we have already decided to use it in cases now that I am here as a DA.
We are going to make sure that they just know they have a friend in this office and they’ll never be judged because of their sexuality or who they choose to love. They are entitled to as much dignity as any other victim that comes before me.
Why a diversion program is important to prosecuting criminals
I tell people I am a prosecutor’s prosecutor. So, what we are using in this office is what I call a balanced approach. What do I mean when I say a balanced approach? I have been a strong advocate against gang violence. I think that we know that gang like 70% of crimes in this county and really throughout the nation. I just want to be honest. They are recruiting young men and young women and they are taking them from a life of productivity into … committing crimes. We’re talking about everything from entering an auto to murder. We now know that they have gone into human trafficking and white-collar crime.
We are going to lock people up that choose to be a part of a gang and, more importantly, do violence while they are in a gang. … For the first time in Fulton County history, (we have) started a diversion program. With this diversion plan, we don’t have to invite you. That’s (how) it used to happen. You (would) have to get the scarlet letter of an indictment and formal charge. And then you could have diversion. I have my lawyers look at the cases from first appearance, when people first get arrested, and see is this candidate appropriate to put into diversion? Maybe they can do community service. They can pay back restitution. They can do other things and they never have to give the scarlet letter of charge.
What is so unique about my program, and different from everyone else in the state of Georgia and most places, is I’m using my budget to pay for it. I’m using my budget to buy the books that the participants have. I’m using my budget to make sure that they have training through us. I’m using my budget to make sure we hook them up with community service partners. I’ve got the carpenters union to sign on and agree that people can come through training through them. They’re going to pay them while in training and then get them jobs.
Accountability courts deal with people with mental health issues or with drug issues or that are veterans that often have both mental health and drug problems. It used to be … these defendants may have five or six arrests. But the problem is as long as you’re suffering from mental illness, you’re going to keep doing stuff. As long as you have a drug habit, you’re going to keep stealing to feed that drug habit. The way the accountability courts work, when I got here, was you had to again have an indictment before you could have the benefit of it. In January of last year we went to court judges and asked them, “Does this really make sense? What is the point of indicting these defendants if we know that what we want to do is get them in services so we can change their lives somehow. Court judges agreed with me. We can actually send them to accountability court without having to invite them.
The community can rest assured that, again, we have that balanced approach. If someone fails to successfully do it, we have them waive the statute so that we can still charge them. I think we are changing lives: one, by removing the most violent elements from society, but two, by going back and trying to save every person that we can.
I met with the Superintendent of the Fulton County public schools and he told me he was just frustrated. He’s just had it up to here with young people (who) bring guns in schools, with fighting. We have partnered with him.
We have many, many initiatives that go towards trying to turn lives around. But no one should ever get confused: I am a prosecutor’s prosecutor. I was a murder prosecutor for eight years straight and should you hurt someone in my community, we’re going to deal with it.
What made her go into public service?
Not politically correct. I got married, had those two little girls, and I was like, I thank God I got a government job. I became a solicitor, which prosecutes misdemeanors and also city ordinance violations. My boss, I don’t think she really liked me. She put me in what was the toughest judges court. Do you know that was the best blessing that ever happened to my life. That judge wasn’t a torias for just being really hard on prosecutors. So, when you’re young, you think that person doesn’t like you, but as you get older you know that they must have loved you because they saw fit to or in and so
I had apply to sit here with this district attorneys office two times and didn’t get any feedback but you know when I was put in that tough situation I didn’t feel my sword and so that judge Jackie she wrote the District Attorney at the time and told him you’re a fool you know hire this young lady and so I came over here in the DAR will never forget it he was in the front page of the paper that day and my entire interview he sat and read the paper and ignored me so I was like why am I here like this is a complete waste of time and after I finished with my spiel who knows what 28 year old miss Willis was saying to him he would like to just go out there and fill out application out the judge already told me to hire and I served that during 16 years four months and four days.
Cleaning up the case files takes time
When I walked into this office, it was completely dysfunctional. We can talk about the fact that, overall, there were 50,000 files going back in to the 90s that had not been properly closed out. There were just boxes and boxes of these cases. We spent a lot of time just closing those cases out. There were close to 12,000 cases here that have been unindicted. Now, some of those were because for the system was set shut down for seven months during the pandemic, but many of them, if we just tell the truth, because of mismanagement of the prior administration.
There were 101 cases that were what you would refer to as police brutality. What we did was create a civil rights unit, which is a small team of lawyers and investigators, and they look at those cases. … We only got through 47 of them last year, but that 47 was probably more than the prior administration that got through in the last 10 years. … Some of them went back as far as 2016. But just one by one, as I tell my team, we’re just going to call balls and strikes. If it’s something wrong, I’m going to charge it. If it’s not something wrong, then I’m not going to charge it. I’m not going to worry about the politics. I’ll sit here for these four years and do what’s right.
That’s what we’ve been doing: one by one just making the decisions on those cases. They are very difficult cases, too. Often what I have found in those cases, the person that would be the defendant or the victim, depending on the lens that you look through, has a mental illness. I have cleared many, many officers but also charged a lot of officers. Often, what I find is the only thing that was needed was courage to make those decisions, despite whatever the political party is. I feel like those officers, they’re entitled to due process. They are also entitled to dignity, but so are the citizens that encountered them.
How does she spend her free time?
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Janet Evanovich? She writes these very, very funny crime mysteries. But what they’ve got like a comic edge. I love her writing. She’s probably who I read to just get away.
We have so many case files, so I take a lot of work home. That reading is not necessarily for pleasure but necessary. I also am a very fast reader.
Oh, I don’t sleep. I started emailing my staff at 3:30 this morning. They are now accustomed to it. I probably knock off maybe about 10:30. I’m always up by 4.
Her daughters light up her life and drain her wallet
They are beautiful, that’s the first thing I would tell you. They are 22 and 24. Both of them are in college now. We’re on the year too many. I graduated College in 3 1/2 years so I’m very annoyed with this long journey. But they tell me their journey is not my journey.
They are both very, very smart. My youngest daughter wants to be a journalist. She’s a journalism major at her university. My oldest daughter, what I think she should be is an artist. She’s actually working on writing a book. So, you ask me what I’m reading? I’m supposed to read this week the first chapter of her book to give her critique. Now, she wants to be a lawyer. I’ll never discourage her. She just has such a beautiful creative spirit.
Why she picked South Fulton as her home
South Fulton (was a) little cheaper than Atlanta, and I’ve always been a government worker. (There are) beautiful, beautiful homes. I like the fact that there are a lot of African Americans. My kids were young. I thought it was a great environment for them. It actually was not the city of South Fulton (when we moved there). It was just unincorporated South of Atlanta. It was cheaper. I mean, that’s just the reality. I was a single mom. I could still get a decent house at a good price. But I’m not leaving South Fulton. I’m committed.
Her hardest case was fighting for children’s future
In 2015, she was the lead prosecutor in the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. She utilized a law ordinarily used to prosecute mobsters — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. An Atlanta jury convicted 11 teachers of racketeering and other crimes for cheating on student standardized tests.
I was lead counsel on the Atlanta Public Schools (case). A lot of the African American community thought that that was a horrible thing to do. You’re just prosecuting middle class African Americans. But they weren’t sitting there as I literally went to the homes of hundreds of children and talked to their parents who don’t have the education I have. The school system was the only way to another thing. But I always told people I was fighting for those children. If in my obituary that’s what y’all say about me, I can live with it. But perhaps that was preparing me for all those nasty calls that come now. They are of a different tenor and a different nature and they’re much more hateful but sometimes you need the preparation. Now it makes sense as to how I landed with that case and so many others.
How being a woman and a single mother influences her judicial career
I think it’s been difficult. I was not only a mom but I was a single mom most of my career. I divorced when my children were very young, four and five years old. And, so, they had always had a mother that worked. I always had a couch in my office so that my children could come there and sleep as I prepare for trial. They probably had too many McDonald’s dinners. But ultimately, what I hope they saw is someone that was strong, someone that was determined, and someone (who) could figure out how to balance and get it all done.