Fani Willis would have you believe she is on a mission from God. In an oration at Atlanta’s historic Big Bethel AME Church last month, the Fulton County district attorney didn’t deny accusations that she had an improper relationship with Nathan Wade, whom she hired to serve as a prosecutor in the case her office brought against Donald Trump. (Their affair is alleged to have included lavish gifts and travel financed by the $654,000 he has earned from the case thus far.) Instead, Willis compared herself to Moses and Martin Luther King Jr.—imperfect people who, nonetheless, changed the world for the better.

“See, Doctor King was an extremely special, brilliant, godly man,” she said. “But he was just a man, and his journey was full of mistakes. Pitfalls, pain, and ugliness. You cannot expect black women to be perfect and save the world.” The Lord of Heaven, after all, will excuse a little lying, cronyism, and corruption if you’re aiming to slay the demon of Trump. 

In her quest to convict the former president, Willis has turned to her favorite weapon—racketeering charges under the state’s RICO statute. It may herald a broader national trend, one bound to have negative consequences far beyond the fate of Donald Trump.

There’s a saying here in Atlanta: Fani Willis has never found a RICO case she didn’t like. RICO is associated with the prosecution of mob bosses—but Willis first used it to go after a different kind of organized crime—bad teachers. A decade ago, she led the prosecution of 12 Atlanta educators accused of cooking the books of standardized test scores, three of whom were sentenced to seven years in prison. 

Back then, Rev. Raphael Warnock called it “a dark chapter,” and cable-news talking head Van Jones, who these days praises Willis for “throwing the whole library” at Trump, warned that Willis’s “unprecedented” use of RICO was part of America’s overcriminalization problem: “How many Americans have to be similarly mistreated—and how many people’s lives have to be ruined—before policymakers act?”

Willis hasn’t looked back. Her office is in the early stages of a sprawling court battle against Atlanta rapper Young Thug. Mr. Thug is alleged to be the kingpin of a violent criminal empire, and he and 28 of his associates have been charged with various crimes—including racketeering. At one year old, it’s already the longest criminal trial in Georgia history. It may take another full year to prosecute, especially considering Willis’s team entered eight terabytes of data into discovery and is expected to call 400 witnesses. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Atlanta criminal-defense attorney Bruce Harvey.

“Whatever happens in the Trump case, expansive use of RICO is here to stay.”

Whatever happens in the Trump case, expansive use of RICO is here to stay. As courts for partisan political gain, more sweeping racketeering cases are inevitable. “What’s to stop conservative prosecutors in small counties from bringing flimsy charges against Joe Biden?” asked David A. Graham of The Atlantic. Good question. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but conservatives have taken notice. Last year, Chris Christie called for prosecutors to crack down on Stop Cop City protesters in Atlanta: “RICO seems particularly appropriate in that circumstance, given that you obviously have an organization here that’s racketeering and is corrupt—and that’s what RICO stands for, everybody,” he said at a conservative conference. “And so we need to be more aggressive about this.” The state of Georgia listened and has since indicted 61 Stop Cop City activists on racketeering charges, citing “‘mutual aid,’ writing ‘zines,’ and ‘collectivism,’ as proof of criminal conspiracy.”

Some GOP lawmakers are trying to go further by introducing the “Protecting Georgians Act,” which aims to expand the state RICO statute by adding a host of misdemeanors to be considered as racketeering activity, including littering, distributing posters and leaflets in restricted areas, loitering, and “prowling,” which is defined as the “act of lurking around an area with the intent to commit a criminal act.” 

It’s possible that Willis or Wade—or both—will be booted off the Trump trial following the salacious made-for-TV courtroom drama in Fulton County Court this week over ethics violations. If so, she will likely be treated as a martyr. #Resistance liberals already regard her as the second coming of Stacy Abrams. In recent months, an artist even surreptitiously added Willis’s visage to an Atlanta mural of the spirit of MLK visiting two black children in a dream. The message is clear: Willis is the inheritor of King’s dream. 

Is America on a path to becoming the nation of RICO? Perhaps, which is why, for all the cries of how “Democracy is on the ballot” in 2024, maybe it’s on a court docket instead.

Ryan Zickgraf is a Compact columnist based in Atlanta.


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