The sweeping criminal case against 34 former Atlanta educators accused of cheating plowed ahead Friday, with a trial scheduled for next spring despite last month’s acquittal of one defendant on a related witness-tampering charge.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said all of the defendants, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, will face trial together May 5 when a jury will decide whether they conspired to change standardized test scores so they could meet academic standards and benefit from bonus pay.
Their lawyers should know what to expect if they were paying attention to the first cheating-related trial, which provided an early look at the prosecution’s case, Baxter said. A jury found former Atlanta schools regional director Tamara Cotman not guilty Sept. 6 on one count of influencing a witness, but she still faces a conspiracy charge in the cheating case.
“That’s pretty much a preview of what’s going to happen, I would assume, in the trial of everybody,” Baxter said during Friday’s status hearing. “I want to be sitting here until I can’t anymore. I want to just work and work and work, most days morning and night, and I don’t want to have any lapses.”
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys said they were confident in their cases after Cotman’s trial.
Even though Cotman was acquitted, jurors were convinced that educators cheated on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Senior Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker said. Because the charges in the upcoming trial are more directly related to cheating than in Cotman’s trial, Rucker said jurors will be more likely to return a guilty verdict.
“Notwithstanding the result of the Cotman trial, we feel extremely encouraged,” Rucker said after the hearing. “We presented evidence that the jurors said did prove cheating occurred. The trial will cover different issues, and we expect a different result.”
But J. Tom Morgan, one of Hall’s attorneys, said jurors in Cotman’s case weren’t comfortable with treating educators like criminals. He said educator misconduct should be regulated by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which has sought suspensions or revocations of 157 Atlanta educators.
“These issues should have been dealt with outside the criminal justice system. That was my impression of what jurors were saying after the previous trial,” Morgan said.
Hall, 67, declined to comment. Her attorneys said last month that she’s being treated for breast cancer.
Baxter said he wants the defendants to make final decisions on whether to plead guilty or not guilty by January. It’s unclear whether prosecutors will offer plea deals.
The judge was critical of both sides as he tried to keep the case on track. Each side will have had more than a year to prepare for trial since the March 29 indictment.
Defense attorneys’ requests for delays won’t be granted unless they give a very good reason, and Baxter said he wasn’t pleased with how prosecutors swamped defendants with a 900-person witness list and hard drives full of millions of documents.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Baxter told prosecutors. “If you don’t know exactly who you’re going to call and what you’re going to do, then there’s a problem. This is a strategy to just dump information and make people spend a lot of unnecessary time.”
Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis said that wasn’t her intent, but she acknowledged, “it would probably take a lifetime” to go through every document.
Timeline of Atlanta cheating scandal
The AJC first investigated improbable improvements on standardized tests in 2008 and conducted a computer analysis of schools with unusual changes in test scores in 2009. The AJC has followed the story as state education officials and a special prosecutor investigated suspicious test scores.
A state analysis flags 58 Atlanta schools for excessive erasures and orders APS to investigate. The AJC’s continuing investigation reports that the gains in test scores and graduation rates claimed by then Superintendent Beverly Hall are illusions. In the summer, the district’s appointed commission finds that widespread cheating was limited to 12 schools. Gov. Sonny Perdue orders his own investigation. Hall announces that she will retire the following summer.
State investigators gather evidence, interviewing scores of APS teachers, administrators and staff. In July, Perdue’s successor, Gov. Nathan Deal, releases the results — an 800-page report saying that 185 teachers and administrators cheated on the CRCT at 44 schools. Erroll Davis, a former chancellor of the University System of Georgia, takes over as superintendent.
APS officials tell implicated educators they have one day to resign or face firing. In March, APS begins holding disciplinary tribunals for those accused of cheating who wanted to appeal their dismissals.
Of the 185 people implicated in the state investigative report, 23 educators have been reinstated and two people are still awaiting tribunal appeals. The rest resigned, retired or lost appeals. Hall and 34 others are indicted on charges of racketeering, theft by taking, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and false statements. Former regional director Tamara Cotman, requests a speedy trial and is found not guilty Sept. 6 of influencing a witness. She still faces conspiracy charges.