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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Georgia case against Trump, a trial as soon as March could be a stretch

The sun sets outside the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Aug. 14, 2023. The prosecutor in the racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and his allies hopes it can go to trial in the next six months — experts have their doubts.

By Richard Fausset, Danny Hakim and Shaila Dewan

Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, said Monday that she hoped her criminal racketeering case against former President Donald Trump and his allies could go to trial in about six months. On Wednesday, her office filed a motion seeking a March 4 start date.

But racketeering cases are not built for speed. Just getting this one together has taken 2 1/2 years. The effort to proceed to trial quickly in Georgia will almost certainly be complicated by the schedules of three other criminal cases that Trump is already facing in Florida, New York and Washington, D.C.

And with 19 defendants represented by a fleet of attorneys, a number of experts Tuesday didn’t expect a smooth path forward and raised the possibility that the case could potentially take years, rather than months, to lumber toward a conclusion. One defendant, Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, has already filed a motion to move the case to federal court.

On Wednesday, the judge overseeing Meadow’s removal effort gave Willis’ office until Aug. 23 to respond to his motion, and set an evidentiary hearing for Aug. 28.

Trump himself has a long history of using delay tactics in his various legal entanglements, and he, too, is likely to file pretrial motions seeking to get the case thrown out or moved to federal court. The judge in the case may also determine that a little over six months is not enough time for defense lawyers to prepare for a trial involving so many defendants and 41 total charges, including a racketeering count that took prosecutors nearly 60 pages to describe.

John B. Meixner Jr., an assistant law professor at the University of Georgia and a former federal prosecutor, said that, normally, a six-month window from indictment to trial for a case like this one would be “a very aggressive timeline.” Prosecutors, and perhaps the judge, he said, will be highly motivated to resolve the case before the 2024 election.

On the other hand, Meixner said, the looming election could make Trump particularly motivated to push back his trial date in Georgia. “If the case is still ongoing, and if Mr. Trump were to win the 2024 election, we’d have a new slate of questions of whether a sitting president can be tried for a state criminal offense,” he said.

Chris Timmons, an Atlanta-area lawyer and a former prosecutor, said that with 19 defendants, political gamesmanship may not be the only factor.

“It takes a while to get everybody arraigned,” he said. “It takes a while to make sure everybody’s got an attorney. There’s discovery that’s got to be engaged in.”

He added: “There’s a lot of information to process to get organized, to be ready to go.”

Defendants are expected to be booked by the end of next week. In a motion filed on Wednesday, Willis sought to schedule arraignments for the week of Sept. 5, and proposed a timetable for other steps that would culminate with a trial starting on March 4, the day before the Super Tuesday primaries. The final schedule is up to the judge who has just been assigned to the case, Scott F. McAfee.

Willis has tackled complex racketeering cases before. She was the lead prosecutor on a case that dragged on for two years after state investigators found that educators in Atlanta had cheated on school tests. By the time the trial finished in 2015, the lead defendant had died.

Another racketeering indictment, against the rapper known as Young Thug and his associates, was handed up in Fulton County in May of last year; jury selection began more than six months later, in January, and a jury has yet to be seated.

Generally speaking, prosecutors prefer to move quickly, while defense lawyers try to slow things down.

The defense in the Trump case is likely to argue that they need at least as much time to build their case as Willis took building hers, said Jeffrey E. Grell, a Minneapolis lawyer who specializes in RICO cases, adding that the court may well listen.

“The paramount obligation is to protect the defendant’s due process rights,” he said.

Willis, a Democrat who took office in 2021 and launched her investigation into election interference in Georgia shortly thereafter, will be up for reelection next year.

Some critics say that handling the Trump case has caused her office to lose sight of more traditional priorities for a district attorney. “I wish I could get Fani Willis as fired up to prosecute murders in Sandy Springs as she is on this one,” said Rusty Paul, the Republican mayor of Sandy Springs, a relatively affluent suburban city in Fulton County.

He added: “I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but I’ve got murderers who committed their alleged crime in 2016 but haven’t been brought to trial.”

Atlanta’s homicide count spiked in 2020 and remained high for two years, mirroring that of many other cities during the pandemic. But police data shows murders down 25% this year compared with the same period in 2022. Noting that the murder rate was dropping, Willis recently told a local radio station, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Gerald A. Griggs, a trial lawyer and president of the Georgia NAACP, worked with Willis in the Atlanta solicitor’s office years ago. He has criticized her in the past for what he believes is an overzealous prosecution of poor Black people. But he also describes her as one of Georgia’s most talented prosecutors — and one with serious experience navigating complex RICO cases.

That experience, said Griggs, who represented a number of defendants in the cheating case, might help move the process along.

“She’s done this before,” he said. “I think people are underestimating her skills as a trial attorney.”

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