Judge considers requests to dismiss some charges in APS cheating trial

The judge in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial said he will think about requests to dismiss some charges against two of the 12 defendants.

By the end of testimony Wednesday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter had not decided on the two motions to acquit, even as the first defense witness was called, a former assistant principal at Dobbs Elementary School.

Yet he quickly denied other motions by other defense attorneys for directed verdicts of acquittal in the bulk of the case.

The prosecution called its final witness Wednesday morning, exactly six months after jury selection began last summer.

“Your honor, it’s a great honor. The state rests,” prosecutor Fani Willis said to applause from the jury.

After the applause ended, jurors were dismissed for a few hours so defense lawyers could argue motions that the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office did not prove its racketeering case, which accuses 12 former educators of conspiring to tamper with standardized tests to ensure higher scores. The racketeering charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. The defendants also have been charged with other felonies.

Baxter said he was “taking under advisement” a defense attorney’s claim that prosecutors did not prove the “making a false statement or writing” charge against former Dobbs Elementary School principal Dana Evans.

As for the case against former Dobbs Elementary teacher Dessa Curb, Baxter told her attorney, “The evidence against your client troubles me. I’m going to take this under advisement.”

Curb is accused of leaving the answer sheets for the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test on a table in her classroom and instructing an aide to correct any wrong answers.

The image prosecutors left with jurors as they ended their case Wednesday was of a 16-year-old girl who had to spend three years in the eighth grade because the Atlanta school system did not prepare her.

The girl testified she was now in the ninth grade at a school in Clayton County while a younger brother has surpassed her and is now in the 10th.

The teenager said teachers at Humphries Elementary School had told students to signal if they needed help with a CRCT question and they would give them the answers.

She told jurors the poor education she got while in Atlanta is the reason she struggled once her mother moved the family to another school district.

“How are you doing?” Willis asked her.

“Not good,” the girl answered. “I don’t get none of the math.”

None of the defense attorneys cross-examined her.

Then the prosecution rested.

The first witness for the defense was called by former principal Evans’ attorney. Mario Watkins was assistant principal at Dobbs under Evans and is now principal of an APS middle school. He was called to talk about Evans’ management style and her approach to education.

Curb’s lawyer also used Watkins to cast doubt on the motives of prosecution witnesses called weeks ago who testified that they were punished or even terminated because they reported cheating on the 2009 CRCT. Each of those witnesses were unreliable employees who had been disciplined for tardiness, unruly behavior or not showing up for work, Watkins testified.

Prosecutors used their final witnesses in the long-running case to document seemingly unrealistic improvements in test scores, as well as show the repercussions on educators who were not part of the alleged conspiracy.

Prosecutors contend there was a districtwide conspiracy led by former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who has not yet been tried, to cheat on the 2009 CRCT so the district and schools would appear to meet mandated requirements in lifting student scores. Prosecutors said educators would help students during testing or erase wrong answers and change them after answer sheets were turned in.

A grand jury indicted Hall, but Judge Baxter severed her case from the 12 after her doctor gave a sworn statement that she could not endure a trial at this time because of her advanced breast cancer. Even so, some of the witnesses, including an investigator and a former human resources director, aimed testimony at her.

Jury selection started Aug. 11 and the first witnesses were called in late September. Estimates are the trial will continue until late March or April.

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