Fani Willis says her office is a scapegoat for notorious Fulton Jail

‘Georgia’s Gitmo’ is an exclusive, in-depth examination of the Fulton County Jail.
Georgia's Gitmo: Fulton County DA Fani Willis full interview with Atlanta News First Investigates
Published: Oct. 30, 2023 at 2:56 PM EDT|Updated: Nov. 1, 2023 at 9:09 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - According to records obtained from the Fulton County Superior Court Clerk in August, at least 1,232 people inside the jail have not been indicted. About 60 of them have been waiting more than a year.

They are individuals not formally charged with felonies, waiting for Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ office to take the case to a grand jury to determine charges, while they sit behind bars.

FULL STORY | How and why the Fulton County Jail has become Georgia’s Gitmo

In September, Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis raised the issue during a meeting, upset more progress had not been made after allocating $75 million in federal pandemic aid to address it. “Collectively, people are pissed of the level of results, or lack there of,” said Ellis during the meeting.

Willis said the commission is using her office as a scapegoat for the county’s inaction involving the jail and other parts criminal justice system, long before she took office.

“Commissioner Ellis is not a supporter of criminal justice; is ignorant; doesn’t know what he’s talking about most days; and is just not really trying to make himself informed of the issues or the progress,” Willis said. “Commissioners have tried to paint this picture that somehow incarceration and indictment tie hand-in-hand, and they don’t.

“What they would like to do is to paint a scapegoat for inaction that they’ve taken,” Willis said. “It is unconscionable the way that our jail is. People need to be in safe conditions.”

Defendants are entitled to a bond after 90 days, but that does not guarantee them a “get out of jail free card” if they are not indicted by that time. It means a superior court judge likely determined the accused is a flight or security risk at their initial bond appearance; are not eligible for a bond due to unrelated pending charges; or they couldn’t afford to pay bail to be released.

Willis, a long-time prosecutor who took office in January 2021, claims her predecessor often took whatever the police faxed to the DA’s office to indict cases with little or no investigation of its own. “We changed completely the way we did business, meaning that prior to someone being indicted, we had to actually have the evidence,” Willis said. “That sounds novice to people, but they were not doing that.”

According to records provided by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in September, at least 690 people were waiting more than a year in jail for their trial dates as of Sept. 16, 2023. A total of 142 people have waited more than three years, and at least 19 people were waiting more than five years.

The district attorney said the 19 individuals waiting more than five years in the sheriff’s custody for trial dates have mental health issues and cannot go to trial until a doctor determines they are competent.

Until then, many of them go back and forth from the jail to Georgia Regional Hospital, a mental health institution the county uses to treat inmates. The facility is for, according to Willis, “people that are so severely mentally ill, extremely violent, not someone you want on the street, [and] not someone your neighbor wants on the street.”

The district attorney has also faced criticism for the enormous resources used to prosecute multidefendant cases, including the election interference investigation which indicted 19 people in August, including former President Donald Trump. It took Willis more than two years to investigate and bring the case before a grand jury.

Two of the 19 defendants requested speedy trials to have their cases heard within months. Willis did not object to the timeline.

Wills said she’s not going to apologize for taking tackling cases that require charging multiple people at a time. “Gangs are causing 80 percent of all crimes and they’re stronger together and they’re going to be indicted together, held responsible together, so that juries get full pictures of the harm,” she said.

The DA also blames the backlog on the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) because its crime lab cannot test drugs quickly enough in a timely manner. She said its lab doesn’t have enough resources to handle all of the requests from her office and the rest of the state.

For example, Willis said if someone is arrested today for meth, heroin and cocaine possession, GBI will only test for one of them. Willis said she’d then be forced to the drop charges for the other two drug possessions. “They don’t have enough resources to test it,” Willis said. “So they only test one of three drugs.”

While Willis said her office has made strides reducing the court’s backlog, that backlog nonetheless continues growing. So far this year, Fulton County’s pending criminal cases have spiked 28 percent from 18,014 in December to 23,211 in August.

To tackle it, Willis said she needs more staff. “We need more investigators and more lawyers and legal support staff that can support them,” she said.

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