Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference

What Makes Donald Trump’s Georgia Indictment So Different From the Others

As you’ve no doubt heard, Donald Trump has now been indicted for the fourth time. Monday night, Fulton County, Georgia’s District Attorney Fani Willis announced Trump and 18 of his lackeys had been indicted on 41 charges (listing 161 seperate acts) related to their alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 U.S. election results in the state.

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This is, depending on how you look at it, a bold step toward holding power to account and/or a dark day for political propriety—but it’s momentous either way. Given that this is Trump’s fourth indictment this year alone, I’ve seen some people online doubting its importance, wondering what makes it so special compared to the other three. Setting aside the fact that even one indictment for a former president, let alone this many, should be special enough on its own, the answer to what sets this one apart is … a lot, actually!

What is RICO?

Trump and his allies are being charged under a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. On both the federal and the state levels, RICO laws are often thought of as being designed to target the mafia and other organized crime groups but they actually have a pretty broad definition of what constitutes “organized.”

Willis frequently (and successfully) employs RICO statutes and has used them to go after a wide range of offenders, from a Bling Ring-style robbery group targeting celebrities to public schoolteachers found to falsifying test results.

As the New York Times explains the significance of RICO laws:

It’s a powerful law enforcement tool. The Georgia RICO statute allows prosecutors to bundle together what may seem to be unrelated crimes committed by a host of different people if those crimes are perceived to be in support of a common objective.

“It allows a prosecutor to go after the head of an organization, loosely defined, without having to prove that that head directly engaged in a conspiracy or any acts that violated state law,” Michael Mears, a law professor at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. “If you are a prosecutor, it’s a gold mine. If you are a defense attorney, it’s a nightmare.”

According to NPR, Willis herself says, “RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story. We use it as a tool so they can have all the information they need to make a wise decision.”

She also says, “The reason that I am a fan of RICO is I think jurors are very, very intelligent.”

Mandatory minimums

One other exceptionally important thing about RICO laws: In Georgia, they come with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. There has been a good amount of debate in the hours since these charges were made public, questioning whether this sentence requires prison time or if those five (to twenty!) years could be served on probation.

The actual state code specifies that those found guilty of violating RICO laws “shall be punished by not less than five nor more than 20 years’ imprisonment or the fine specified in subsection (b) of this Code section, or both.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossed for “both,” although I suppose technically, “imprisonment” could possibly end in house arrest rather than prison time.

By the way, the fine mentioned caps at $25,000—unless the person in question made money off their racketeering. In that case, they can be ordered to pay three times the amount gained from the violation. I have no idea how a court could determine how much money was made from these specific offenses but keep in mind that Trump turned his “Big Lie” into a grift that brought in hundreds of millions of dollars from aggreived and gullible MAGA supporters.

No pardon power

A lot of people seem to have the impression that these new state charges are not as big a deal as the federal indictments that came before them. But a state-level conviction comes with at least one huge bonus: No presidential pardon power.

There is the possibility for an exceptionally dark timeline in which Trump wins the presidential election next year. That would mean that even if he were convicted on all the federal charges brought against him, he could potentially pardon himself. That is not the case with a state conviction.

It gets better. As MSNBC explains:

And unlike in other states, such as New York, clemency isn’t up to the governor in Georgia, either — not directly, anyway. Rather, under the state constitution, there’s a board of pardons and paroles, with five members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate to staggered, seven-year terms. The current board was appointed by a mix of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and his predecessors.   

Additionally, a person convicted of a crime is only eligible for a pardon in Georgia after they’ve served their full sentence, and that includes prison, probation, and paying any fines they may owe.

We’re probably going to get to watch

There is a very good chance that this will be the first (and possibly only) of Trump’s trials that will be broadcast.

Unlike the federal courts Trump has been idicted and arraigned in so far (as well as New York state court), Georgia law allows for photography and video broadcast inside the courtroom. It seems specific individuals and organizations need approval from a judge but that broadcasting in general is allowed as the default rule, only overturned by the judge or the state Supreme Court.

This could be game-changing for a man who thrives on controlling his own narrative, usually via all-caps rants on social media and rambling phone calls to Fox News. Obviously, we can’t expect his most staunch supporters to see reason, no matter what is revealed in his own words in this trial, but this degree of transparency does have the potential to affect public opinion for the shockingly high number of otherwise reasonable voters who have been swayed by Trump’s nonstop repetition of his lies and conspiracies.

This will also reportedly be the first time Trump will be forced to take a mugshot when he is arraigned, which is set to happen by August 25. Just as a fun little bonus for all of us watching at home.

(featured image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.