Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis decided to use a four-decade-old statute to pursue racketeering charges against former President Donald Trump and 18 others late Monday.
The RICO Act charges stemmed from alleged attempts to illegally interfere with the 2020 election. Georgia was one of several states Trump lost that he and his allies contested.
Willis said in a 98-page indictmentreleased late Monday that Trump and others "unlawfully conspired and endeavored to conduct and participate in a criminal enterprise in Fulton County, Georgia, and elsewhere." More broadly, racketeering "means to commit, to attempt to commit, or to solicit, coerce, or intimidate another person to commit" a variety of crimes.
The RICO Act is meant to punish those who conspire with others to commit a variety of racketeering offenses. The alleged violation of the RICO Act is among 13 counts Trump was charged with by Willis on Monday.
Josh Schiffer, a defense attorney in the Atlanta area, said the indictment lays out why the alleged acts were a violation the RICO Act.
"That story is told through the overt acts and that connects each of those individuals, each of those 19 individuals, along with over a dozen unindicted co-conspirators in this overarching enterprise for which everyone is responsible," Schiffer said.
What could make this case particularly concerning for Trump and others is that RICO Act convictions carry a mandatory five-year sentence. Additionally, since the case is being tried in state court, defendants would not be eligible for a presidential pardon.
The RICO Act also gives Willis the ability to tie in alleged crimes committed outside of Georgia, Schiffer said.
"It was related to the criminal enterprise that floated through the state of Georgia, specifically the alleged theft of electoral votes, the defrauding of elected leaders, things like that," Schiffer said. "RICO is an incredibly powerful tool specifically because of that mandatory jail time and the ability to charge all of these co-conspirators together. That gives a strategy where the district attorney can lean on and really squeeze the people at the bottom of the pyramid, the people who aren't exposed with the top charges but may have been involved in some of the lower overt acts by threatening them with extraordinary consequences."
Trying cases under the RICO Act can be a challenge. Willis said late Monday she would like to begin a trial within six months. But with such a complicated case with 19 different defendants, that remains in question.
"There are easier charges for her to carry and there are more difficult charges for her to carry," Schiffer said. "And as you're defending or prosecuting a case as complex as this RICO, different things, different factors are going to be more important and less important as you go towards a disposition."
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