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APS judge to defense: ‘cross-examine until the cows come home’

By Mark Niesse and Bill Rankin - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A Fulton County judge today urged prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case to waste no time weeding out prospective jurors who are clearly ineligible to serve for the lengthy trial.

Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said a quick perusal of questionnaires filled out Monday by 100 potential jurors showed that at least one person no longer lives in Fulton County and another is in the military and scheduled to be deployed next week.

“This case is going to be protracted and protracted if you can’t go through these answer sheets and deal with this,” Baxter told the attorneys. “…We need to weed out the ones who are absolutely not qualified.”

When some lawyers said they had not been able to look through all of Monday’s questionnaires, Baxter told them to get to work on it right away.

“Frustration has set in, Evelyn, what do I do?” Baxter asked his longtime court reporter, Evelyn Parker.

“Deep breath,” Parker instructed.

This week, 400 prospective jurors — in waves of 50 at a time — are filtering into the large ceremonial courtroom where the trial will held. They are introduced to the prosecution and defense teams, receive instructions from Baxter and fill out the lengthy questionnaires.

On Monday afternoon, the second batch of 50 jurors walked into court and gawked at the sheer number of lawyers: the six-person prosecution team at a front table and row upon row of defense attorneys with their 12 clients.

“As you may have suspected, this is the Atlanta Public Schools case with teachers and educators,” Baxter said, drawing murmurs of recognition and resignation from the jury pool.

Trial was at hand, they realized, in the notorious test-cheating scandal at APS.

Whoever is chosen as one of 12 jurors and 11 alternates will be embarking on an extraordinary ordeal. The racketeering conspiracy trial against a dozen former Atlanta school employees is expected to last about three months.

Defense attorneys, making it clear they’re digging in for a battle in which they are ready to argue every point, started off with a series of motions seeking separate trials, more time and exclusion of irrelevant testimony. Baxter rejected most of them.

“Unfortunately it’s a large trial and a large courtroom,” the judge said. “I’m not going to be able to give everyone a different trial in the case and have it go on for five years.”

Even so, Baxter promised that the 12 defense teams would have the opportunity to ask all the questions they want.

“You’re going to be able to cross-examine until the cows come home,” Baxter said.

Four hundred potential jurors will come to the Fulton courthouse this week to fill out lengthy questionnaires, and the court is ready to call 400 more if necessary. Prospective jurors are coming in waves of 50 at a time, twice a day, so the seat-and-greet alone will go on through Thursday.

Individual questioning, which is expected to produce all sorts of excuses by those who want to avoid the jury box, could begin next week.

Before the jurors were ushered in, Baxter told lawyers he will hold court Mondays through Thursdays, with Fridays off to give all parties the chance to catch up with other business.

He also warned everyone involved not to be late and said he fine late-comers a minimum of $200.

Baxter told prospective jurors that the community has been inundated with newspaper, television and radio stories about the test-cheating scandal.

“Some of you think you have made up your minds,” Baxter said, then reminding them the law requires them to give the 12 defendants the presumption of innocence. As for all the media coverage of the case, he said, “That has no significance in this courtroom. You must put it aside.”

Baxter acknowledged that the trial could be “terribly inconvenient” for jurors who live in north or south Fulton and aren’t used to driving into Atlanta every day. “But (jury duty) is part of being a citizen in this country and this is a responsibility we have to bear.”

He told the potential jurors to stop reading, watching and listening to any news stories about the case and not to conduct any investigation on their own with their computers or cell phones.

“This is a very important business,” Baxter said. “This courtroom is sacred and I want to do everything right.”

But some on the defense questioned the modifications made to the “sacred” courtroom, asserting that they were unable to see and hear the proceedings from the back rows.

“You cannot see the witness stand,” said Annette Green, who represents former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Shani Robinson.

After hearing the same from several other defense attorneys, Baxter took a look for himself, sitting in the back of the courtroom as potential jurors filled out their questionnaires. He came back with bad news.

“I don’t see a problem,” he said. “You can see the witness stand. There may be three or four jurors you can’t see, but I just don’t see the problem, and your motion is denied. I sat on the back row and I could see the witness stand. Bring a step ladder in there if you want to, I don’t know.”

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