The Atlanta Public Schools test cheating case goes to trial on Monday — an extraordinary prosecution of 12 defendants, ranging from administrators to classroom teachers, all in the same courtroom at the same time.
The sheer logistics of the case are almost overwhelming: a dozen defendants, each with or his or her own defense teams, the six-member prosecution team, a pool of 400 prospective jurors, intense public interest, as much as two weeks just for jury selection and at least three months for the entire trial.
And looming over it all, the missing lead defendant: former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was either the prime mover in the cheating conspiracy or the victim of a prosecution witch hunt. She is receiving treatment for Stage IV breast cancer and is too gravely ill to stand trial.
The Fulton County Superior Court is using its ceremonial courtroom for this spectacle, and even that large room had to be modified: spectators’ benches were yanked from one section to make room for the platoons of defendants and their lawyers. A separate courtroom equipped with a closed-circuit video feed of the proceedings is ready to handle an overflow crowd.
Legal strategy is daunting in a case of this magnitude. For example, there are so many defense attorneys it will be hard for them to keep from stepping on each others’ toes, both literally and figuratively.
Will all 12 defense attorneys make opening statements? Will all 12 cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, presumably covering the same ground over and over again? Will they have to change tactics in midstream if one defendant flips on another? How will the prosecution manage to make clear and memorable cases against 12 separate people? Will the jury be able to keep the cases straight?
And speaking of the jury, how do you find 12 impartial citizens who can place their lives and careers on hold for three months?
“Think of those people who really can serve for three months and it won’t totally destroy their lives,” Atlanta trial consultant Denise de La Rue said. “What if you’re self-employed? How many people like that can go without pay for three months and not lose their homes or their ability to put food on the table? Not many.”
'We're all anxious to have a resolution of this case'
The case began in 2009 with articles by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which found that gains on standardized tests at some schools were so great as to be statistically all but impossible. Prompted by the AJC's reporting, an investigation ordered by Gov. Sonny Perdue implicated 185 teachers and administrators at 44 APS schools.
In March 2013, a Fulton grand jury handed up a massive indictment charging 35 APS administrators and educators with being part of a racketeering enterprise — the Atlanta Public Schools system — and conspiring to change students’ answers on federally mandated curriculum tests. The defendants were also indicted on a variety of charges, such as influencing a witness, making false statements and writings, giving false statements under oath, and theft by taking.
Since that indictment, one defendant passed away. Twenty-one others entered guilty pleas, agreed to cooperate with the prosecution and received sentences on probation.
At plea hearings, one educator after another — some breaking down in tears — said they were told test-score targets had to be reached, even though it was common knowledge this could not be accomplished without changing students’ scores or giving them the correct answers. Excuses would not be tolerated, they said.
Throughout months of co-defendants admitting their misdeeds, the 12 remaining defendants have steadfastly maintained their innocence. And they have held firm even while Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has repeatedly warned them of “serious consequences” if they are convicted at trial.
The defendants standing trial Monday are:
- Former School Reform Team executive directors Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts, who oversaw clusters of schools;
- Principal Dana Evans of Dobbs Elementary School;
- Assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan of Deerwood Academy;
- Teachers Pamela Cleveland, Shani Robinson and Diane Buckner-Webb of Dunbar Elementary School, and Angela Williamson and Dessa Curb of Dobbs Elementary School; and
- Testing coordinators Donald Bullock of Usher/Collier Heights Elementary School and Theresia Copeland of Benteen Elementary School.
“We’re all anxious to have a resolution of this case,” Pitts’ lawyer, George Lawson, said last week. “It’s unfortunate these folks have been dragged through the mud for what others have pleaded guilty to or been given immunity for.”
Lawson said that he is unaware of any witness who will testify that the school system’s top administrators gave instructions to cheat. “It’s always, ‘They should have known cheating was going on,’” the defense attorney said. “But that’s not enough.”
'How will the jury keep everyone separate?'
On Monday, the hundreds of potential jurors will stream into the courthouse and fill out questionnaires of more than 40 pages each. Then prosecutors and defense lawyers then will begin individual questioning of prospective jurors.
De La Rue, the trial consultant, predicted those most likely to serve will be retirees or government or corporate employees who can still receive a salary while sitting through the trial.
Once seated, jurors will be hard-pressed to keep track of such a complex case over the course of a months-long trial, she said.
“How will the jury keep everyone separate?” de La Rue asked. “It’s virtually impossible. Things get blended. It will be very hard to isolate the evidence against each of the defendants. It becomes blurry when you have to look back on notes that are two to three months old. That’s going to be an uphill battle for the defense.”
Defense lawyers also will have to work together so they don’t alienate jurors, said Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Steve Sadow, who is not involved in the APS case. For example, jurors will get irritated if multiple defense attorneys cross-examine the same government witness with the same questions.
These same attorneys should also be careful not to elicit testimony that incriminates a co-defendant who could be seated just a few feet away, Sadow said. He recalled one high-profile trial in which a fight almost erupted between two defense attorneys during a break after one of them elicited damaging testimony against the other’s client.
“When that happens, a defense lawyer becomes a pseudo-prosecutor,” Sadow said.
Keith Adams, who represents Buckner-Webb, the former Dunbar Elementary teacher, acknowledged the importance of a coordinated defense — up to a point.
If it’s in Buckner-Webb’s best interest for him to ask a question that could elicit damaging testimony against a co-defendant, that question will have to be asked, Adams said. “I don’t anticipate a lot of that going on, but my primary concern is to zealously represent my client.”
'Never seen a Fulton jury convict an innocent person'
A year ago, Fulton prosecutors fell flat in their first chance to obtain a conviction at trial in the APS test-cheating scandal.
That trial occurred because Benjamin Davis, a lawyer representing Cotman, the regional supervisor, filed a speedy trial demand on a single influencing-a-witness charge. Prosecutors alleged that Cotman tried to intimidate a former interim principal from cooperating with GBI agents as they investigated test cheating.
During that trial, prosecutors presented mountainous evidence of cheating at APS. Perdue, who by then was out of office, gave emotional testimony as to why he launched a state investigation. A University of Michigan professor, who conducted an erasure analysis of APS standardized tests, testified that administrators such as Cotman should have known cheating had occurred.
After the trial, jurors said they were impressed by the prosecution’s test-cheating evidence. But they acquitted Cotman because, they said, prosecutors offered insufficient evidence of the single count before them.
Davis said he anticipates his client will be cleared once again.
“I’ve never seen a Fulton County jury convict an innocent person,” he said. “I’ll be very surprised if this will be the first time I see it happen.”