APS jurors ask about RICO on Day 3 of deliberations

Former APS regional director Tamara Cotman (left) and former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan sit while listening to a response to a question from the jury Tuesday afternoon. A jury of six men and six women deliberated for a third day in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. Jurors are sorting through roughly five months of testimony against 12 former educators accused of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

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Former APS regional director Tamara Cotman (left) and former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan sit while listening to a response to a question from the jury Tuesday afternoon. A jury of six men and six women deliberated for a third day in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial. Jurors are sorting through roughly five months of testimony against 12 former educators accused of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

In their third day of deliberations in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial, jurors began asking questions about the racketeering charge against 12 former educators.

The jury turned on the light alerting the judge and lawyers that they had a question within minutes of their arrival Tuesday.

They were put on hold until 10 a.m., however, because many of the defense lawyers were not expected until then. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter had agreed Monday it would be safe for attorneys to report to court an hour after jurors started their day.

In that first question, jurors asked if they were to consider all the lesser felonies — such as false swearing, or making a false statement or writing — when deliberating the most serious charge, namely violating the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the first count in the indictment, which names all 12 defendants.

The answer was “yes.”

The jurors were heard applauding and cheering when the deputy knocked on the door to bring them the judge’s written answer.

In the afternoon, the six-man, six-woman jury sent out a second note about how to apply the RICO count — specifically, if co-conspirators could also be people who are not defendants, did not receive immunity or did not plead guilty.

While the reason for that question is anyone’s guess, it suggested jurors were examining testimony in which references were made to individuals who, while not charged, might still be considered part of the alleged conspiracy.

Defense attorney Teresa Mann said she thought “the universe of co-conspirators is limited to what was proven at trial.”

Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis said the question seemed to relate to notebooks containing names of other educators from Usher/Collier Heights Elementary, the school where one of the defendants worked.

Over the objections of all the defense attorneys, Judge Baxter wrote the jurors that they could consider anyone a co-conspirator as long as it was beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jurors began deliberations last Thursday. They were off for three days, resumed deliberations on Monday, and had deliberated a total of 12½ hours when, shortly after arriving Tuesday, they asked their first question about RICO.

The dozen defendants are accused of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to change students’ answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. The goal, according to prosecutors? To inflate test scores to ensure the APS district would meet federally mandated benchmarks, and to secure career and financial gains.

Prosecutors say former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall was the head of the alleged conspiracy. Her case was separated from the 12 now on trial because she was undergoing breast cancer treatment. Hall died three weeks ago.

A racketeering conviction could bring a 20-year prison sentence.