Judge removes public defender in Atlanta Public Schools cheating case

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

After more than three years of appeals, a judge removed the public defender representing the remaining six defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case.

Attorney Stephen Scarborough first claimed in 2019 that he should not be required to represent all six educators who were convicted of crimes related to the 2000s-era scheme to change students’ answers on standardized tests.

Scarborough argued it was a conflict of interest to represent multiple people in the same case. He had been working on their appeals for two years before he went before Senior Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter to request the change.

ExplorePublic defender working on APS cheating case wants off

Baxter denied the request in 2019 and scolded Scarborough for taking so much time to come to that conclusion. It took the next several years to wind through the appeals process. Eventually, the Georgia Supreme Court sent the case back to Baxter.

“How are your clients? Are they doing OK living under this cloud?” Baxter asked Scarborough at Thursday’s hearing on the same issue. “It’s just a sad situation as far as I’m concerned.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The prosecution alleged that most of the defendants would no longer qualify for public defenders based on changes to their income and assets since the trial began, and that they had failed to report those changes to the state as required.

Baxter gave the defendants until March 16 to find new representation or decide to represent themselves.

ExploreAltered test scores years ago altered lives, stained Atlanta schools

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first raised questions about the unusually high test scores in Atlanta schools in 2001, and again in 2008. The ensuing investigation and criminal trial has been dubbed one of the longest in Fulton County’s history.

That’s part of why advocates for the defendants called on Baxter to put an end to the ongoing proceedings on Thursday, calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“The title of ‘Longest and Most-Expensive Criminal Trial in Georgia History’ has been earned,” said Sarah Abdelaziz of the Abolitionist Teaching Network at a press conference Wednesday. “And yet we believe not a single child in the public school system of Atlanta or Georgia has benefitted from these legal actions.”

ExploreAPS cheating case: From first hint of scandal to jury verdict

Members of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, clergymen and local educators joined Abdelaziz at the news conference, argued the remaining defendants have paid enough already — financially, in community service and through tarnished reputations — to atone for their crimes.

“It’s time for us to close the chapter on an ugly part of Georgia’s history,” said Gerald Griggs with the NAACP, who was also formerly an attorney for another educator in the case. “It was a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money.”

Baxter dropped prison time for another defendant last summer, after she completed community service work. The remaining defendants are Diane Buckner-Webb, Theresia Copeland, Sharon Davis-Williams, Tabeeka Jordan, Michael Pitts and Shani Robinson. The defendants have maintained their innocence and argue, through their attorneys, that Baxter rushed defense attorneys throughout the trial during cross-examinations and made “outrageous missteps.”