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Fani Willis Rival Wades Into Another Fulton County Case

1 week ago 23

Ashleigh Merchant—the attorney who led the effort to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from the election interference case against former President Donald Trump and his allies—is wading into another major RICO case prosecuted by Willis' office.

Merchant made an unexpected appearance at the Fulton County Courthouse on Monday afternoon to defend another Atlanta-based attorney who, in a shocking twist, was arrested while in court.

Lawyer Brian Steel, who is representing rapper Young Thug (Jeffery Lamar Williams) in the Young Slime Life trial, was held in contempt of court on Monday after he confronted Judge Ural Granville about a conversation reportedly held between the judge, prosecutors, and a star witness. Young Thug and 27 others were indicted by Willis for gang-related crimes in 2022. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Monday's developments sent shockwaves through Atlanta's legal community, and a group of criminal defense attorneys showed up in support of Steel, including Merchant, who chairs the state's criminal defense attorney association.

Merchant, who is representing former Trump aide Michael Roman in the election interference case, rose to national prominence earlier this year after she revealed in a bombshell court filing that Willis was in a relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. Her motion to oust Willis quickly picked up steam, with several co-defendants joining her efforts, and spurred into an evidentiary hearing that dragged the matter out and deeply embarrassed the district attorney, who was forced to testify about the relationship.

Newsweek reached out to Merchant via phone for comment.

Fani Willis Rival Merchant
Attorney Ashleigh Merchant on February 27, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia. Merchant defended criminal defense attorney Brian Steel after he was held in contempt of court on Monday. Brynn Anderson/Getty Images

Although the judge overseeing the Trump case ultimately decided that Willis could remain on the prosecution so long as Wade resigned, the co-defendants in the case are appealing the judge's ruling to the Georgia Court of Appeals. An October 4 hearing has been scheduled for the appeal.

On Monday, Steel requested a mistrial after telling the judge: "You're not supposed to have communication with a witness who's been sworn." In response, Granville demanded to know how Steel learned of what was said in that meeting, and when the defense attorney refused to disclose his source, Granville had Steel arrested and ordered him to spend the next 10 weekends in jail.

Merchant, who entered the courtroom to defend Steel, told Granville that he couldn't threaten Steel with contempt "for presenting a motion in good faith." She told the judge that the court had a "duty" to alert the defense that ex parte communications were being made. Steel told Granville earlier in the day that "none of the defense team, to my knowledge, was aware that this was going on."

"He shouldn't have had to learn it from wherever he learned it," Merchant said.

She then called on Granville to recuse himself from the contempt proceedings, telling the judge, "Mr. Steel is entitled to all the same due process rights that Mr. Williams and every other defendant in this courtroom is entitled to. He's entitled to those. One of those is to have a fair and neutral judge decide his case."

Speaking to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Merchant said, "We're not OK with this. We're not going to let this happen to our brother, who was simply doing his job."

"This is not how advocates should be treated," she added. "It's hard enough being a criminal defense attorney, and we shouldn't be threatened with jail."

Granville's decision to put Steel behind bars stunned many lawyers. Merchant told the judge on Monday that about 20 to 25 other lawyers came with her to the courthouse to support Steel. On X, formerly Twitter, Georgia-based criminal defense attorney Andrew Fleischman commended Steel as "a goddamn lawyer's lawyer," while attorney Scott Greenfield applauded for having the "fortitude" that "every criminal defense lawyer should have."

"Brian Steel is one of the most reputable lawyers you will ever find," conservative legal analyst Phil Holloway wrote. "Judges can't just jail lawyers for doing their job Judges can't have secret meetings with DAs either."

Georgia-based criminal defense attorney Ben Mozingo added, "Brian Steel just asked if he could be housed with his client while he's in custody on his criminal contempt so they can prepare for trial. This guy is so good it's hard to articulate."

After the judge held Steel in contempt, he asked Granville if he could spend the weekends with his client at the Cobb County Jail instead so that they could work on their case. The judge said he was OK with that and would speak with the sheriff.

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