Imagine that you’re reading a novel, one that’s rich, complex, and has a large number of characters and subplots. Only by reading through the whole work can you see how the threads assemble into a whole, how individual acts serve the overall plot, and how each character slots into the larger story.
Now imagine that novel ripped apart into chapters. Or even into individual vignettes and disconnected scenes. What would anyone just handed a small set of those loose pages be able to make out about the book as a whole? Would they tell a story or just leave readers in confusion?
In a way, this is the challenge facing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis as she tries to hold her RICO case together in Georgia court. (RICO refers to the state’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.)
The case against former President Donald Trump and his 18 co-defendants is not the first time Willis has used the racketeering laws originally developed to fight organized crime. She’s currently engaged in another case against rapper Young Thug and 27 others who Willis charged with violating Georgia’s “gang activity” laws. In 2015, a previous Fulton County district attorney even used the RICO laws to successfully prosecute 12 Georgia teachers involved in a cheating scandal. All but one of those teachers was convicted.
In a July article at Atlanta NPR/PBS affiliate WABE, Willis was quoted expressing her belief in the powers of Georgia’s RICO law. “The reason that I am a fan of RICO is I think jurors are very, very intelligent, but they want to know the whole story,” she said. “They want to make an accurate decision about someone’s life. So RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story.” RICO also helps solve one of law enforcement’s greatest challenges.
"When you have a criminal organization, [or] organized crime, you really need strong investigative and prosecutorial tools,” Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University, told Salon in August. “So it's tough to reach the godfather. The godfather tries to keep his hands clean."
Prosecutors find RICO laws to be “powerful tools in targeting not only foot soldiers in a criminal enterprise, but also high-level decision makers,” as The New York Times reported. That’s expressly because RICO laws allow the actions behind a criminal scheme to be tied together. “One power of RICO is that it often allows a prosecutor to tell a sweeping story—not only laying out a set of criminal acts, but identifying a group of people working toward a common goal, as part of an ‘enterprise,’ to engage in patterns of illegal activities,” wrote The New York Times.
By allowing prosecutors to show the full, sweeping story of a criminal enterprise, it’s not just those who commit individual, overtly criminal acts who go down. The godfathers and the foot soldiers are tied together in a way that makes getting convictions at the top much easier.
RICO cases also exert a lot of pressure on those foot soldiers to flip on their bosses. Cunningham noted to Salon that "if you indict a lot of people under the RICO Act, that creates a huge incentive for people who are kind of lower [in] the food chain to cooperate to avoid spending at least five years in prison.”
All of this is why Willis is fighting efforts by former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and others to remove their cases to federal court, as well as pushing to prevent Trump and others who are attempting to sever their cases from the main trial. Some of those defendants, such as attorney Kenneth Chesebro, are seeking to sever their cases by asking for an accelerated court date under Georgia’s “speedy trial” laws. In response, Willis has asked the court to fast-track all 19 defendants in an effort to keep the case together.
Allowing jurors to hear the entire story, including how the 161 “acts” described in the indictment against Trump and the others fit together, is particularly important because many of those acts are not, in themselves, crimes. Setting up a meeting or leaving a voicemail on someone’s phone might seem innocent unless the jury hears how they fit into the broader scheme. They need that “whole story” that Willis described to understand why an action was in support of something criminal.
The power of RICO makes it very tempting to prosecutors—and easily misused. Even when used properly, the sheer scope of RICO cases can make them complicated and confusing to juries. When defendants are able to “sever” their case from the main case, the story can become fragmented and even more difficult to explain. That’s happening right now in the Young Thug case, where multiple defendants have had their cases severed. (But there is a lot happening in that case to add to the confusion).
For Willis, a single trial—with all defendants involved, at a single time—would be best. Best for avoiding the complexity of conducting multiple, likely overlapping, trials. The fewer trials the better when it comes to telling the full, sweeping story.
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