UPDATE: Former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall appeared in court Friday morning for arraignment, as did other former educators facing criminal charges related to alleged cheating. Hall waived her formal arraignment, and Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter scheduled trials to begin May 5, 2014.
It was just the first of many hearings in what promises to be a long and arduous process. But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter moved quickly Thursday to get the Atlanta test-cheating case headed toward trial with no unnecessary delays.
Baxter ruled he was not going to allow defense attorneys to represent more than one defendant in the racketeering case, in order to avoid any real or potential conflicts of interest. The judge told four lawyers representing two clients each that they could no longer continue to do so.
Baxter also expressed displeasure when Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis said it’s possible more Atlanta Public Schools educators could be indicted.
“When is that going to happen?” Baxter asked, without getting an answer.
“It’s going to be pretty upsetting to me if midway through the thing others are thrown into the mix,” Baxter said. “It’s going to throw a monkey wrench into it.”
Baxter said the current defendants have a right to get their cases settled as soon as possible and noted the District Attorney’s Office has been investigating the test-cheating case for about two years.
The 65-count indictment accuses former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other administrators and educators of conspiring to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests. Defendants also are charged with making false statements and writings, influencing witnesses, and theft by taking.
Baxter allowed four defendants to formally enter pleas of not guilty Thursday. Most of the rest of those charged are expected to do the same Friday.
During an arraignment, a prosecutor must read the indictment against the accused. But defendants typically waive this requirement, and the four APS defendants did so Thursday.
“It takes an hour and a half,” Baxter joked about the time required to read the 90-page indictment.
Those pleading not guilty were: former APS Area Superintendents Tamara Cotman, Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams and Deerwood Academy Assistant Principal Tabeeka Jordan.
It was clear that Baxter had decided the conflict of interest issue when he took the bench Thursday.
When Bob Rubin, who like three other defense attorneys in the case represents two co-defendants, told Baxter there was no conflict and his clients had approved the arrangement, Baxter said he wasn’t going to allow it.
There is too great a risk to allow attorneys to represent more than one person at a time in a case in which prosecutors claim there was a conspiracy from the top down to alter test scores, Baxter said.
“I am gravely concerned, not right at this moment, but down the road, if things change, situations change,” Baxter said. “It could be one of your clients wants to go one way and could end up being a witness in the case. What do I do then? … There are all kinds of permutations that come into play.”
Each defendant, he said, “needs to have their own lawyer to look at solely that defendant’s rights and future. … There’s a higher calling for me to protect the entire proceeding.”
When the four defense lawyers asked Baxter for permission to immediately appeal his decision, the judge denied their requests.
“I’m confident this is the correct decision, and I’m not going to delay the case by sending it up to the Court of Appeals,” he said. “I’ve made my decision. It’s time to move on.”
Baxter directed the four attorneys to decide by May 16 which one of their clients they are going to represent and he told the other defendants to find new counsel. Those defendants will be allowed to enter their pleas May 16.
On Friday, Baxter will consider a motion jointly filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News to remove gag orders placed on defendants as a condition of their bonds. The judge also is expected to consider a motion filed by the District Attorney’s Office that seeks to prohibit defense attorneys from discussing the case with the news media.
Atlanta lawyer George Lawson, who represents Pitts, the former area superintendent, called the DA’s motion “preposterous.”
“There’s no reason why the defense can’t respond to allegations by the district attorney,” he said. “Every time he holds a press conference about this case, we will, too.”
Lawson gave his comments shortly after Pitts, standing mute outside the courthouse and flanked by his wife and daughter, listened to his daughter tell news reporters her father was innocent of all charges.
“He has gone to bat for children his whole life,” Kristen Pitts said. “I am completely confident he will be exonerated. … We will fight this.”
Staff writer Marcus Garner contributed to this article.