Paul Howard, who handled the Ray Lewis murder case, Atlanta school cheating scandal and the police killing of Rayshard Brooks during his lengthy tenure, has been ousted as Fulton County’s top prosecutor.
Opponent Fani Willis, who prosecuted cases for years in the county district attorney’s office, outpaced her old boss in June’s Democratic primary, but neither contestant received 50% of the vote, spurring Tuesday’s runoff.
Willis trounced the incumbent Howard on Tuesday by a 3-to-1 margin, according to county election results. With almost 91% of precincts reporting, Willis had more than 43,000 votes, about 73% of the tally, to Howard’s 15,800.
There were no Republican candidates on the ballot during the June primary.
DA touts record
Calling the race “the most heated in America” and reminding reporters that politics is a contact sport, Howard conceded defeat late Tuesday and promised to help ease Willis’ transition.
“What is important to me is protecting the people of this community, and I want to make sure that when her first day in office is a reality that she’s able to continue to protect the people who live in Fulton County,” he said.
Howard has much to be proud of, he said. Not only is he the first elected African American district attorney in Georgia, but he won re-election on five occasions.
He leaves office under a pall of accusations, but he didn’t address those in his concession speech. Rather, he touted his success in tackling violent crime and homicides, reducing the Fulton County Jail population and making cities safer during his 23 years in office.
“I came with pride and I’m leaving with pride,” he said, explaining he is particularly proud of his efforts to prosecute police officers charged with killing Black men.
He will continue to combat police brutality in his post-prosecutor life, he said.
“It is really rough when you are a man and you have to tell your kids to watch out for the police and be careful. I don’t think that’s the way we ought to live in this country and so I’m going to be working to change that,” he said.
The Rayshard Brooks killing
Chief among Howard’s prosecutions of police was his decision to charge ex-Atlanta police officers Devin Brosnan and Garrett Rolfe in Brooks’ June killing. Rolfe is charged with murder after shooting Brooks as he fled the officers in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.
Howard’s critics decried the decision as hasty, saying it leap-frogged a state investigation and appeared aimed at scoring political points amid a heated re-election campaign. The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association called the charges a “grandstanding vote-seeking tactic.” Howard denied the accusations, lauding his record of charging dozens of police officers since taking office in 1997.
“My hope has always been that we would have one system of justice, that it would be the same system for the police as it is with any defendants,” he said Tuesday night. “I’m hoping that Ms. Willis will continue that tradition — that when a policeman is involved in some misconduct that the DA is the person that’s responsible.”
Willis kept her victory speech short, hugging her masked team and urging those in attendance to get something to eat and go outside and social distance.
“I would like to thank all the elected officials who really had the courage to stand against an incumbent and for what was right,” she said. “I want to thank the voters of this county for believing in me. Tonight’s a good night. We made ‘herstory.’ I am just humbled and thank you.”
The good and the bad
Howard will step down with a mixed record. While his handling of the trial of NFL player Ray Lewis and two others charged with murder after a Super Bowl party in 2000 was deemed a failure (Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction; the other men were acquitted), his successes were many.
His controversial decision to prosecute teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal ended with 11 defendants convicted on racketeering and other charges. Howard has also proudly promoted his Project Level Up program, aimed at curbing recidivism, and his Conviction Integrity Unit. As part of that effort, his office took another look at the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981. It also freed an inmate serving a life sentence on a drug offense.
He remains under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which has declined in the past to discuss its probe with CNN, but CNN affiliate WSB reported it stems from allegations he illegally padded his government salary with funds from a nonprofit.
Earlier this month, he paid $6,500 to settle a case with the state ethics commission, which accused him of 14 violations stemming from his alleged failure to disclose his roles in nonprofit organizations, WSB reported.
Howard had previously said he would be “totally exonerated” in both matters.
Three women have also accused him of sexual misconduct, harassment and gender discrimination. Howard has questioned the timing of the lawsuits, which he said came “within weeks of the general election.”
“I think people can see through it,” he said. “Guy’s been in office for 23 years and then a month or two before the election these harassment suits are filed.”