Europe

With Plea Deals in Georgia Trump Case, Fani Willis Is Building Momentum

Fani T. Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Ga., had no shortage of doubters when she brought an ambitious racketeering case in August against former president Donald J. Trump and 18 of his allies. It was too broad, they said, and too complicated, with so many defendants and multiple, crisscrossing plot lines for jurors to follow.

But the power of Georgia’s racketeering statute in Ms. Willis’s hands has become apparent over the last six days. Her office is riding a wave of momentum that started with a guilty plea last Thursday from Sidney K. Powell, the pro-Trump lawyer who had promised in November 2020 to “release the kraken” by exposing election fraud, but never did.

Then, in rapid succession, came two more guilty pleas — and promises to cooperate with the prosecution and testify — from other Trump-aligned lawyers, Kenneth Chesebro and Jenna Ellis. While Ms. Powell pleaded guilty only to misdemeanor charges, both Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Ellis accepted a felony charge as part of their plea agreements.

A fourth defendant, a Georgia bail bondsman named Scott Hall, pleaded guilty last month to five misdemeanor charges.

With Mr. Trump and 14 of his co-defendants still facing trial in the case, the question of the moment is who else will flip, and how soon. But the victories notched thus far by Ms. Willis and her team demonstrate the extraordinary legal danger that the Georgia case poses for the former president.

And the plea deals illustrate Ms. Willis’s methodology, wielding her state’s racketeering law to pressure smaller-fry defendants to roll over, take plea deals, and apply pressure to defendants higher up the pyramids of power.

The strategy is by no means unique to Ms. Willis. “This is how it works,” said Kay L. Levine, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, referring to large-scale racketeering and conspiracy prosecutions. “People at the lower rungs are typically offered a good deal in order to help get the big fish at the top.”

But Ms. Willis, 52, is particularly well-versed in this aspect of the prosecutor’s art. She used the same strategy a decade ago, as the lead prosecutor in a high-profile racketeering case against Atlanta public school educators accused of cheating to improve their students’ standardized test scores.

In that case, 35 people were indicted, but more than 20 of them took plea deals.

A number of the educators who went to trial were convicted, although the most prominent defendant — Beverly Hall, who had been the Atlanta schools superintendent — died of breast cancer before her case was resolved.

Ms. Willis has been using a similar tactic in another attention-getting racketeering case, this one involving Jeffery Williams, the rapper who performs as Young Thug, and 27 others charged with gang activity. In that case, too, a number of lower-level defendants have entered plea deals to get out of jail, avoid a lengthy and costly trial, or both, though it remains to be seen whether her will win any convictions at trial.

The election case lays out a number of ways that prosecutors say Mr. Trump and his co-defendants sought to overturn his narrow loss to Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Georgia in 2020. The spate of deals are bad news for Mr. Trump, giving the prosecution access to witnesses who plotted and carried out key aspects of his legal and public relations strategies as he tried to cling to power.

The deals will also likely prove harmful to the cases of other major defendants, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was the most prominent lawyer working on Mr. Trump’s behalf after the election. At the time, he often appeared with Ms. Ellis and Ms. Powell at his side. (Notably, Mr. Giuliani, who made his name as a federal prosecutor by successfully using racketeering laws, has derided the case as “a ridiculous application of the racketeering statute.”)

Another lawyer-defendant, John Eastman, worked with Mr. Chesebro on a plan to deploy fake Trump electors in swing states.

The spate of deals in the elections case is harmful to the cases of other major defendants, including Rudolph W. Giuliani seen here with Jenna Ellis.Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On Tuesday, Steven H. Sadow, the lead lawyer for Mr. Trump in the Georgia case, tried to put the best face on the latest plea deal.

“For the fourth time, Fani Willis and her prosecution team have dismissed the RICO charge in return for a plea to probation,” he said in a statement. “What that shows is this so-called RICO case is nothing more than a bargaining chip for D.A. Willis.”

Persuading a jury of 12 people to convict Mr. Trump, a leading 2024 presidential candidate and the most polarizing figure in American politics, is a far different challenge than securing plea agreements, especially ones like the four so far that do not involve jail time.

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer for Mr. Eastman, has said that prosecutors will be hard pressed to get a dozen jurors “to convict anybody, because I think in any jurisdiction, even Washington D.C., you will have at least one holdout.”

That prediction may apply only to Mr. Trump, as a report drafted by a special grand jury that heard testimony in the case last year foreshadowed.

In many of the panel’s votes on whether to recommend charges in the case — particularly regarding Mr. Trump — a single juror voted no. Ms. Willis will need a unanimous jury verdict to get a conviction in court. (While there were typically 21 jurors voting in the special grand jury meetings, there was no defense to argue the other side.)

Ms. Willis’s charging strategy — to cast a wide net and seek the indictment of not only Mr. Trump, but also of allies of his ranging from obscure figures to political celebrities — stands in marked difference to that of Jack Smith, the special prosecutor who has brought federal charges against Mr. Trump for his efforts to retain power after the 2020 election.

The Georgia case was bound to be more unwieldy. But the succession of plea deals in recent days underscores the logic behind indicting so many others, Ms. Levine said, “because it helps light a fire under their decision about whether to cooperate.”

She added: “I think there was clearly a lot of thought that went into, ‘What would it take to get these people who were part of the entourage — part of the, you know, the set of allies of the Trump loyalist team, to get them to cooperate?’”

Though Ms. Willis charged 19 people, a smaller number of core defendants may be less likely to get enticing plea deal offers. Those include Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani, who each face 13 charges, as well as Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former White House chief of staff, and David Shafer, the former head of the Georgia Republican Party.

Mr. Eastman and Jeffrey Clark, a defendant who was a senior Justice Department official, are also seen as among the higher-value defendants.

For others, it is unclear what kind of deals might materialize.

David Shestokas, a lawyer for Stephen Lee, an Illinois pastor charged with helping to intimidate a Fulton County election worker and pressure her to falsely confess to ballot fraud, said on Tuesday that his client would consider any deal offered to him. But he added that Mr. Lee “remains steadfast in having done nothing wrong.”

The deal taken by Ms. Powell was a blow to her reputation, Mr. Shestokas said, and “a horrible, horrible outcome.”

Related Articles

Back to top button