Who Is Fannie Willis

who is fannie willis
who is fannie willis

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, center, mother of Secoriea Turner, is surrounded by her sons and Secoriea's father, Secoriey Williamson, as she becomes emotional while reciting a poem during the home-going service for Secoriea at New Calvary Missionary Church on July 15, 2020, in Atlanta's Sylvan Hills community. Atlanta police 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.

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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.

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

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.”

Willis, left, sits in the audience as Robert Aaron Long appears in front of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville at the Fulton County Courthouse on Aug. 30.

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

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