After Testimony in Atlanta, Willis Receives Both Praise and Condemnation


It has been a rare point of consensus about the case brought by Georgia prosecutors against former President Donald J. Trump: the Fulton County district attorney, Fani T. Willis, probably made a mistake by having a romantic relationship with a co-worker.

But the agreement ends there.

As people in Atlanta and its suburbs digested gripping and emotional testimony, what they saw wasn’t just the behavior of Ms. Willis, but a test for their views on race, gender, justice and the city they call home.

Ms. Willis’s sharpest critics, backers of the former president, relished what they saw as the error that could pull her off the case — endangering, if not entirely torpedoing, a prosecution that some legal experts regard as one of the strongest ones against Mr. Trump.

The biggest fear of some of her supporters is that those critics are correct.

“I just wish she would’ve made better decisions,” said Andrea Maia, a recent college graduate living in Atlanta, who is otherwise sympathetic to and supportive of Ms. Willis. “I wouldn’t have done it.”

The testimony came as part of a hearing this week to decide whether Ms. Willis’s romantic and financial relationship with Nathan Wade, an outside lawyer she hired to help lead the prosecution, amounted to a conflict of interest and whether she should be removed from the case.

The hearing — and the broader turbulence over the relationship — has been closely watched by many in Fulton County, who would make up the jury pool in a trial and will ultimately decide whether Ms. Willis, who is up for re-election, should remain in office.

But the reaction to her testimony — which she decided to give despite the misgivings of some colleagues — has also generated sympathy and more support, as many believe that she should remain on the case and not need to have her personal life put on such vivid display.

“I think some people are probably going to come away from this testimony with more faith in Fani Willis,” said Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who followed the testimony and was disturbed by the spectacle that surrounded it.

“She braved the breach and said I’m going to speak for myself here and tell you what’s going on,” Professor Jones said. “Some people are going to respect that.”

Jessica Browne, who lives in Atlanta, said she was one of them.

She acknowledged that she had known little about Ms. Willis or the finer points of the case accusing Mr. Trump and his allies of conspiring to overturn his election loss in Georgia in 2020.

“I appreciated the way she defended herself,” Ms. Browne, 42, said.

“She didn’t break any laws,” she added. “Donald Trump did.”

The hearing has come with enormous stakes as many of Mr. Trump’s opponents fear that the prosecution could unravel if Ms. Willis is removed and the case is reassigned to another Georgia prosecutor, who could make changes to the case or drop it entirely.

“I think a lot of people saw this case as the one of the stronger cases, if not the strongest, against Trump,” said Zachary Peskowitz, an associate professor of political science at Emory.

If Ms. Willis is taken off the case and it does not move forward as Mr. Trump’s critics hope, the outcome could have disastrous political consequences for Ms. Willis. “That’s going to be devastating,” he said.

But even if Ms. Willis remains, some fear that the attention paid to the relationship and the allegations of impropriety could undermine the prosecution.

“It stokes doubt in members of a Fulton County jury, it stokes doubt in the process of the prosecution,” Professor Jones said. She added: “These are all negatives that take our focus away from whether or not under Georgia law the former president and his colleagues have the right to engage in the kind of behavior they were engaging in.”

Chris Sandbach, a personal injury lawyer, called the hearing a “political circus.” He said he did not believe there was “any objective evidence of any wrongdoing.”

“This was a public smearing, for lack of a better word,” he said. “This is not a defense, this is politics.”

But Scottie Dennis, Jr., 39, believed the entire prosecution was motivated by politics and animosity toward Mr. Trump.

“Everybody and their momma knows, as we say here in the South, that if he weren’t running for re-election there wouldn’t be a case against him,” said Mr. Dennis, a supporter of Mr. Trump living in Northwest Atlanta.

The opponents of Ms. Willis reveling in the situation are not only political ones, but also the sort of enemies prosecutors rack up on the job, like Latasha Kendrick, the mother of Yak Gotti, one of the rappers charged in a racketeering case brought by Ms. Willis against the YSL, the rap record label prosecutors have characterized as a gang.

“She’s about to get a taste of her own medicine,” Ms. Kendrick said as she watched the hearing from the Atlanta courthouse. “She don’t look like the big bad wolf now.”

Some argue that Ms. Willis has faced added scrutiny because of her race and gender.

“If she was not a woman and Black, I don’t think she would have gone through this,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate for African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, who has been a vocal ally of Ms. Willis and has prayed with and counseled her privately in recent weeks.

“What this was all about was distraction and delay,” he said. “I think it’s time to move on.”

Kamina Pinder, a law professor at Emory University, agreed that Ms. Willis should not be disqualified, but found her actions — including having a relationship with a lawyer working for her — were troubling.

“Everything she does is going to be scrutinized, so for her to do this is just bizarre,” Professor Pinder said. “As a Black woman, I know there are unique challenges when you’re in a position of power, but that doesn’t excuse behavior that was dubious and unethical.”

Devon Rogers, 37, a musician who recently moved to Atlanta from Memphis, said the circumstances seem to confirm that romance can give way to ill-advised choices.

He had seen in news reports the questions about Mr. Wade’s qualifications for the position. “I don’t know if that’s true,” he said. “But how can she even take a chance putting him up there?”

Her actions, he said, could damage the case and give Mr. Trump’s lawyers material that could help him avoid a conviction.

“Should she be disqualified? I can’t say,” Mr. Rogers said. “But I think she’s been her own worst enemy.”


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