Democrats are calling Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney Fani Willis a “national hero” for her high-profile case against Donald Trump. Meanwhile, thousands of incarcerated people live in squalor in Fulton County jails, some dying without a day in court.

A rally to protest the death of LaShawn Thompson last year at the Fulton County Jail. (Erik S. Lesser /EPA-EFE / Shutterstock)

It was the mugshot seen around the world. On Thursday, Donald Trump was briefly processed in an Atlanta jail, and his dour booking photo went viral, especially among #Resistance Democrats who celebrated as if they’d just won the Super Bowl.

Their MVP? Fulton County’s district attorney. “Fani Willis is a national hero,” Joy-Ann Reid proclaimed on MSNBC.

But not everyone in Atlanta is so enamored with Willis’s dogged pursuit of Trump and eighteen of his allies related to a wide-ranging conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Some local activists and criminal justice reformers say there’s been a human cost to this massive, resource-intensive case and another sprawling racketeering case, this one against Young Thug and the Young Slime Life (YSL) collective, local rappers accused of operating a criminal gang.

The Fulton County Jail, which earlier this summer became the target of a Justice Department investigation, is overcrowded, filthy, and ridden with vermin. Nearly half of the people held in squalid conditions there have yet to be indicted, and some have been waiting for years. Worse, incarcerated people are dying behind bars with increasing frequency.

Devin Franklin, a policy lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights and a former Fulton County public defender, told Jacobin that vital resources were being diverted to the high-profile case at the expense of due process and tolerable conditions for incarcerated people. He added that Willis’s “decision to go forward with the Trump case in this manner, regardless of whether he’s guilty or not—it is costing lives.”

“Too Many Are Dying”

Last month, Noni Battiste-Kosoko spent her nineteenth birthday locked up in an Atlanta city jail cell.

Six days later, the teenager — who was black, homeless, and dealing with mental illness — was found alone, face down. She was pronounced dead. Battiste-Kosoko had been held in custody for fifty-three days on a misdemeanor for a vandalism incident at a high school because she couldn’t afford to pay the $1,000 bond.

She’s far from the only tragic story in Fulton. Fifteen people died in custody in 2022. Seven more have died thus far in 2023, including sixty-six-year-old Alexander Hawkins, whose body was found in his cell on August 18 after being arrested several weeks prior on a shoplifting charge.

Fani Willis has defended her office in the past, saying she inherited a massive case backlog that worsened during the COVID-19 lockdowns. That’s true. As the pandemic essentially shut down the court system for months, Fulton County’s backlog of civil and criminal cases increased from 149,200 to 206,000 between December 2020 and June 2022. In response to Willis’s request for more funds, the Fulton County Commission earmarked $75 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act toward reducing the backlog. It was called Project ORCA due to the whale-like size of the caseload. As of July 31, the backlog had shrunk to slightly less than forty thousand, according to the latest ORCA report.

But that work has had no impact on the status quo at the jail. The ORCA report’s scorecard of Fulton County’s justice system shows them failing to meet federal standards in any area. The average stay in a Fulton County jail facility, which is well over capacity, was sixty-five days in July, more than double the standard of a month. Meanwhile, nearly half (49 percent) of the 3,642 people held in Fulton County’s jail have not yet been indicted — an increase from 46.6 percent in September 2022, according to an ACLU study. (The federal standard is 10 percent.) Likewise, 98 percent of felony cases should be closed after a year, but in Fulton County, it’s only 62 percent.

Nonlethal violence is also a problem: in 2022, the jail had 11 fires, 534 fights, and 114 stabbings, according to Atlanta Magazine. During one commission meeting, Sheriff Pat Labat reportedly rolled in a wheelbarrow full of confiscated shanks, observing that one inmate gets stabbed per day on average.

“You got this inequitable system, where people with more money can bond out, and people who have lesser means are sitting in jail — and unfortunately — too many of them are dying,” said Fallon McClure, deputy director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Georgia.

A RICO Backlog

On August 4, thirty-four-year-old Christopher Smith died in a hospital shortly after being found unresponsive in a Fulton County jail cell. He’d been held without bond, awaiting trial for nearly four years on a host of felony charges. “So the last three years of his life were spent inside of a jail on charges that he had not been found guilty of,” said McClure.

Meanwhile, Willis has ten attorneys working on the two-and-a-half-year investigation of the Trump conspiracy. The indictment revealed this month spans 98 pages, with more than 160 actions former president Trump and coconspirators are accused of taking to overturn election results.

The YSL and Young Thug RICO trial has been underway since January, but no juror has been chosen out of two thousand prospective jurors.

“At some point, this is no longer a COVID backlog,” said McClure. “For all intents and purposes, it’s a RICO backlog now.”

RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, was initially written to give prosecutors additional leeway to go after mobsters. Undoubtedly, the corrupt Trump organization has sometimes worked like the nation’s most powerful gangster cartel. However, some observers worry about the blowback of Willis’s liberal use of RICO laws.

At a conservative conference in Atlanta earlier this month, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie called for federal prosecutors to crack down on Stop Cop City protesters by borrowing from the Willis playbook. “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. And so we need to be more aggressive about this.”

Ultimately, Trump’s appearance in Fulton County Jail was brief. Unlike Battiste-Kosoko, the teen who died last month, he was quickly able to pay his $200,000 bond, greet reporters, get on a plane, and then post his mug shot on social media to raise cash.

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