APS cheating trial: More questions, no verdict

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter responds to a question from the jury Monday during the second day of deliberations in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. (Kent D. Johnson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter responds to a question from the jury Monday during the second day of deliberations in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. (Kent D. Johnson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)


WHEN THERE’S A VERDICT

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will bring you the news immediately when the jury returns its verdicts against 12 former educators on myajc.com for subscribers, and at www.ajc.com. Our blog at http://news.blog.ajc.com/ will post verdicts and reactions as they come out, and you can get it as it happens by following our Twitter account @gaschoolsnews.

Jurors in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial went home after a second day of deliberations Monday, during which they again questioned how a charge is worded in the indictment.

The jury of six men and six women found discrepancies in the wording of the allegations against different defendants charged with the same crime — making false statements and writings.

The count naming former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan says she erased answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test or told others to make changes, but she is not accused of covering up the alleged conspiracy to correct wrong answers. Yet others facing the same charge are accused of making corrections and covering up the alleged conspiracy.

The discovery sparked a spirited debate, with prosecutors and defense attorneys talking over one another.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ultimately instructed the jury to strictly follow the indictment, even though the same crime seems to have different elements.

That is the same thing Baxter told the jurors last week when they noted that the names of the schools in two of the counts were incorrect. In that instance, he said their decision should be based on a strict reading of the charges.

The jury ended a second day of deliberations just before 5 p.m. Monday. They must comb through roughly five months of testimony against 12 former educators accused of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate scores on standardized tests.

The case now centers on 24 counts that were among the original 29 charges listed in an indictment returned two years ago. Three of the original 29 counts name former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall only. The case against Hall, the accused ringleader of the alleged conspiracy, was severed from the other 12 because she was being treated for breast cancer. Hall died three weeks ago.

Two other counts were dropped last week against two former testing coordinators because Baxter said the prosecution did not prove its case — specifically, a count against Sharon Davis-Williams of false swearing and a count against Theresia Copeland of false statements or writings.

A racketeering conviction could bring 20 years in prison. But lesser felonies in the indictment — influencing a witness, false swearing, or making a false statement or writing — also carry prison time.

In an early exchange on Monday, defense lawyers objected to the judge wanting them to stay inside the courtroom for the duration of jury deliberations, which could take days, or even weeks.

Some defendants have signed documents saying other lawyers could represent them if their lawyers were away, although Judge Baxter did not name those who signed. But for the most part, the lawyers have to stay in the area unless they give notice.

For example, defense lawyer George Lawson had a doctor’s appointment Monday afternoon. He notified Baxter of his stand-in and the judge gave his consent.

There was a sharp exchange between Baxter and defense attorney Ben Davis. Davis accused the judge of punishing defense attorneys by making them stay nearby.

“I’m not trying to punish you,” Baxter said.

“The attorneys on this case have all worked together and we all know the case well,” Davis said.

Thus far, when the jury has had a question, any delay in addressing it has been because prosecutors were not in the courtroom. Their offices, however, are just a few floors up.