One of the longest criminal trials in Georgia history is coming to an end as lawyers in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial finish their closing arguments.
Then it goes to the jury.
On Tuesday, lawyers for six of the 12 defendants continued the theme started by their colleagues in closing arguments on Monday. Namely, they kicked at the pillars that prop up the prosecution’s case: former educators who admitted to cheating, then cut a deal to testify against their ex-colleagues.
Angela Johnson, who represents former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland, called witnesses for the prosecution “nothing but a menagerie of misfits and malcontents.”
Akil Secret, attorney for former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan, questioned why there was a criminal case at all, especially one that charges educators with violating the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, typically associated with organized crime.
“Never have I seen the power of the state wielded like I have in this case,” Secret said. “They are liars, cheaters and thieves who came up here to testify to save their own skins. This RICO stuff is overreaching. … It’s an abuse of discretion. Teachers? Racketeers? Really?”
The defendants are charged with conspiring to correct answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests to ensure higher scores, allegedly to help the district meet federal requirements and earn educators bonuses and pay raises. A RICO conviction could bring a sentence of 20 years in prison.
Johnson, Secret and four other defense attorneys who gave closing arguments Tuesday in front of Judge Jerry Baxter in Fulton County Superior Court said the prosecution gave jurors half-truths and incomplete information.
Sanford Wallack, the attorney for former Dobbs Elementary School teacher Dessa Curb, said the unprecedented Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe that led to the criminal charges was driven by a single-minded ambition to find cheating, an ambition that he said ensnared innocent victims.
“She’s here because of the Salem witchcraft mentality that took place during the GBI investigation,” Wallack said. He told jurors to dismiss a photograph of test booklets placed on a table in Curb’s classroom. He said they could have been left there because Curb was required to fill out information in portions of the exams.
“No matter how many times prosecutors tell you these photos show cheating,” he said, “they don’t.”
On Monday, prosecutor Clint Rucker summed up what he called the longest and largest criminal trial in state history by referring to the crux of the case: statistical evidence showing extreme rates of wrong-to-right erasures on the Atlanta tests — 256,779 in 2009 alone. He reminded jurors that a statistical expert described the rates of such changes occurring naturally as being as unlikely as an Atlanta snowstorm in July. Another calculated the odds as a ratio of one to a number with many, many zeros. He used the word “septillion.”
Though much of the case was based on statistics, witnesses fleshed out the numbers.
But Secret told jurors that prosecutors presented no forensic evidence, such as fingerprints on a test answer sheet, to corroborate anything their witnesses said.
Today, four defense lawyers will make their closing arguments. Then the prosecutors, who summed up their case Monday morning, will have another 1 1/2 hours to wrap up the roughly five months of testimony.
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