Throughout the three-week trial of Tamara Cotman, prosecutors presented mountainous evidence of test cheating at Atlanta Public Schools.
But Cotman wasn’t on trial for test cheating. The former APS regional director walked free Friday, acquitted of a single felony charge of trying to influence a witness during the height of a state investigation into the test-tampering scandal.
“This was certainly a test case for the prosecution — they put on everything they had to give this thing a trial run,” said Atlanta lawyer Bill Thomas, who does not represent an APS defendant. “They got their behind handed to them.”
News of the verdict overjoyed the 33 other former APS executives and educators charged in the case. Whether it boosts their confidence to the point of continuing to fight a sweeping 65-count racketeering indictment remains to be seen. But lawyers closely following the case said the acquittal should make it far more difficult for prosecutors to strike plea deals with those charged.
Fulton prosecutors remained confident in the larger racketeering case set to be tried in May, citing conversations with jurors who said evidence of cheating was impressive.
The prosecution team, which included at least five attorneys and support staff, spared little expense presenting the first criminal case arising from the APS test-cheating scandal.
They called on former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who gave emotional testimony as to why he launched the state investigation. Jurors heard from schoolteachers who tearfully recounted how and why they changed students’ answers on standardized tests. The District Attorney’s Office also retained, at $300 an hour, a University of Michigan professor who provided lengthy testimony on the statistical improbabilities of wrong-to-right erasure marks.
But jurors who heard the case said they had too much reasonable doubt as to whether Cotman had tried to influence Jimmye Hawkins, the former interim principal of Scott Elementary School. During the trial, Hawkins testified that she felt intimidated by Cotman when she distributed memos labeled “go to hell” at a Nov. 17, 2010, principals meeting and then directed the educators to address them to GBI agents investigating test cheating at APS schools.
But jurors noted there was conflicting testimony from other principals who testified that Cotman used the “go to hell” memos as a stress-relief exercise and told educators they could address the memos to anyone causing them frustration.
“As a jury, we want everyone to understand that we were not asked to decide whether or not there was cheating in Atlanta Public Schools,” said jury foreman Greg Pollock, a 47-year-old payroll manager. “This was a case about influencing a witness, and our focus was primarily on that.”
Fellow juror Ben Emerson, a 28-year-old research engineer, was asked whether he thought the prosecution presented a strong case about widespread test cheating at APS.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“This has opened my eyes to what actually seems to have gone on,” Emerson said. “I hope that justice is served in the correct manner and that the people who were responsible for things that have happened have to speak to that.”
District Attorney Paul Howard, while expressing disappointment with the verdict, said he was buoyed by his discussions with jurors after they returned their verdict.
“The jurors said to us if the case only involved cheating, they would have been able to make a decision in two minutes,” Howard said. “So we are really encouraged by that.”
In the racketeering trial scheduled for May, Howard said, “We believe based on what the jurors indicated and the evidence that was presented the verdict will be different.”
Cotman, who oversaw 21 north Atlanta schools, also stands accused in the sweeping racketeering indictment.
After the verdict, she fought back tears when describing the stress she had been under since she was first implicated and later charged in the scandal.
“When you are falsely accused and attacked and your name is scandalized, that’s very hard,” said Cotman, who could have faced five years in prison if convicted on the charge. “But I believe the truth will set the captives free. That’s where I’ve been, and that’s where I’ll continue to be.”
The two other School Reform Team executive directors charged in the racketeering indictment said Cotman’s acquittal boosted their spirits.
“I’m very relieved that some of the other side is coming out,” said Michael Pitts, who sat in the gallery behind Cotman and watched most of the trial. “We helped children all our lives, (but) we’ve been villainized by people who don’t even know us. I think this is a good first step.”
Said Sharon Davis Williams, who oversaw schools in southwest Atlanta: “I just had faith the truth would prevail and it did. I believe that will happen for me as well.”
Atlanta attorney Robbin Shipp, who represents former Parks Middle School reading coordinator Sandra Ward, said she hoped the verdict is indicative of the community’s sentiments regarding the APS test-cheating prosecution.
“I am jubilant and hopeful it is a bellwether of things to come,” Shipp said, referring to the 34-defendant racketeering case. “It is my hope they are willing to stick to their guns and fight this case to trial.”
Cotman’s case went to trial first because her attorney, Benjamin Davis, filed a speedy trial demand on the charge of influencing a witness.
The larger racketeering indictment — which involved 35 defendants before former D.H. Stanton Elementary School principal Willie Davenport, 66, died last week — remains under attack. During lengthy pretrial hearings, defense attorneys said prosecutors improperly used coerced statements by APS defendants to build their case.
Fulton Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter refused to dismiss the indictment but allowed the attorneys to appeal his decision. The Georgia Court of Appeals has yet to say whether it will consider the issue before the trial.
But Friday was not a good day for the prosecution, said Atlanta defense lawyer Michael Trost, who is not involved in the case.
“I think it is problematic and possibly a little dangerous to extract too much from the verdict in this one case,” he said. “Each case is specific … (but) the takeaway is if I’m a defense attorney I’m somewhat encouraged.”
Dwight Thomas, a lawyer who represents Millicent Few, the former APS head of human resources and another defendant in the racketeering case, said he is exactly that.
“This a major blow that has been struck,” he said. “I believe that, as to my client and others, (the verdict) will give them a great deal of encouragement that the presumption of innocence will withstand any attack by the Fulton County prosecutors. … I’m waiting to get the email on where the victory party is.”
Timeline for APS cheating scandal
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzes scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test and finds what appear to be unusual score changes at several area schools. Atlanta Public Schools teachers and others begin alleging extensive cheating. Superintendent Beverly Hall, a nationally known innovator who built her reputation on improved APS scores, dismisses the possibility of cheating. APS responds that it has no plans to investigate.
A computer analysis developed by the AJC flags schools with unusual changes in test scores. In the case of some schools, the odds against improvement by chance were greater than 1 billion-to-1. The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement calls for an erasure analysis on all CRCT answer sheets. Hall announces that national experts will review test scores at schools that recorded extraordinary improvements.
The state analysis flags 58 Atlanta schools for excessive erasures and orders APS to investigate. The AJC’s continuing investigation reports that the gain in test scores and graduation rates claimed by 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 with a vow that no one who cheated on tests will be allowed in front of Atlanta schoolchildren again, as APS pursues the process of firing teachers and administrators suspected of cheating,
APS officials tell implicated educators that they have one day to resign or face firing. In March, the Atlanta school district begins holding disciplinary tribunals for educators accused of cheating who wanted to appeal their dismissals. In the spring, the AJC investigative team reports that 196 districts throughout the U.S. exhibit suspicious patterns of test scores that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating. In December, the Atlanta school board votes 7-2 to renew Davis’ contract.
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 either resigned, retired or lost appeals to keep their jobs. A Fulton County grand jury issued indictments in March against Hall and 34 others on charges of racketeering, theft by taking, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and false statements in connection with the cheating scandal. One of the defendants, former D.H. Stanton Elementary School principal Willie Davenport, died last week.
How we got the story
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first investigated improbable improvements on standardized tests in 2008 and then conducted a computer analysis of schools with unusual changes in test scores in 2009. Because of the AJC’s reporting, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement conducted an erasure analysis on all Criterion-Referenced Competency Test answer sheets statewide. A state investigation in 2011 found that 185 teachers and administrators in Atlanta Public Schools cheated on the CRCT at 44 schools. Nearly two years later, Fulton County prosecutors indicted 35 educators. Tamara Cotman, an area director, was one of the first to stand trial and was acquitted of Friday of a felony charge of influencing a witness.