Prosecutors failed to win a conviction Friday in the first criminal case related to widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools, with jurors clearing a former school system executive who was accused of interfering with an investigation of falsified test scores.
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How Cotman was found not guilty
Tamara Cotman, a former area director for Atlanta Public Schools, beat the single charge brought against her in this case that she influenced a witness during the investigation of widespread cheating. Among the key factors of the trial:
What the prosecution tried to prove
Cotman tried to cover up evidence of cheating in the Atlanta school system by intimidating principals and encouraging them to tell state investigators to “go to hell.”
What the defense argued
Although Cotman handed out memos labeled “go to hell” during a principals meeting Nov. 17, 2010, they weren’t aimed at state cheating investigators. Instead, Cotman used the notes as a stress-relief exercise that principals could write to anyone they wanted.
The biggest reason the prosecution lost
Jurors said witnesses gave conflicting accounts about whether Cotman mentioned the GBI or state investigators when she handed out the “go to hell” memos. The jurors also said the prosecution didn’t show that Cotman’s actions were intended to influence one of the principals in the meeting, former Scott Elementary Principal Jimmye Hawkins.
The defense’s strongest argument
Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, told jurors to set aside emotional arguments about how children were cheated of their educations. Instead, Davis asked the jurors to closely examine the evidence and measure whether it fit the alleged crime.
The defense’s gambit
Davis sought a speedy trial because he was confident prosecutors couldn’t prove their case once a jury heard from witnesses who contradicted Hawkins. He didn’t deliver an opening statement, and he relied on witness testimony and the evidence presented. The strategy paid off when the jury acquitted Cotman despite indications of cheating at 15 of the 21 schools she oversaw.