Jury selection begins Monday for the first trial involving a defendant charged in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.
Former regional Superintendent Tamara Cotman faces a single count of trying to influence a witness, and lawyers following the prosecution predict the trial’s outcome will have an impact on how the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office and the other APS defendants decide to resolve their cases.
Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has expressed concern about being able to find a fair and impartial jury, given the widespread publicity of the APS test-cheating scandal case. He has called in 250 county residents for jury selection.
Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, has said he’s confident his client will be acquitted. In an interview, he said the prosecution “completely got it wrong” and that he has the witnesses to back his claims up.
Defense attorneys following the APS case say this first trial is extremely important to Fulton prosecutors, who have obtained a sweeping racketeering indictment against 35 defendants, accusing them of participating in a conspiracy to inflate standardized test scores.
“This first case is going to be a bellwether for what is to follow,” said Atlanta lawyer Bill Thomas, a former federal prosecutor. “If the prosecution doesn’t prevail, it could embolden defense attorneys representing others charged in the case and cause the District Attorney’s Office to reassess what they’ve got. I don’t think the prosecution can afford to suffer a loss in this first case.”
Conversely, Norcross attorney Max Richardson said, if the prosecution prevails it could lead other APS defendants to consider entering into plea negotiations.
“If this turns out to be a slam-dunk prosecution, some defendants may begin thinking about that,” he said. “They have their licenses and pension at stake, not to mention the prospect of possible prison time. This first trial should be influential in so many ways.”
Prosecutors will ask jurors to convict Cotman of trying to influence former Scott Elementary Principal Jimmye Hawkins.
In court filings, prosecutors say that in late 2010 Cotman convened a meeting of a dozen principals whose schools had suspiciously high test scores and were going to be investigated. Cotman passed out sheets from a memo pad with the heading “Go To Hell” and instructed them to give memos saying that to GBI agents who would be visiting their schools and to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had been writing about the suspicious test scores, court filings say.
An APS employee wrote an anonymous letter to the Board of Education about the meeting and Cotman believed Hawkins was responsible, prosecutors allege. Over the next several months, Cotman instigated a campaign of harassment against Hawkins and eventually transferred her out of her job, prosecutors say.
Cotman took an unusual route to become the first APS scandal defendant to stand trial.
She remains charged with 34 other former APS officials and educators in a 90-page indictment that accuses them of racketeering and other charges. In that 65-count indictment, Cotman and three other defendants were charged with influencing a witness.
Lawyers for the four defendants challenged those counts, saying the accusations of influencing a witness were so vague they could not formulate a defense. Before Baxter could issue a ruling, prosecutors returned to the grand jury and obtained four separate indictments. The indictments accused each of the four defendants, including Cotman, of a single count of influencing a witness and they contained more detailed information on the allegations.
After the new indictments were returned in June, Cotman’s lawyer, Davis, filed a speedy trial demand on the single influencing-a-witness count. This meant if the case was not tried by the end of August the indictment against Cotman would be dismissed. Baxter then scheduled jury selection to begin Monday, with testimony starting Aug. 26.