Judge to resentence three in APS cheating

The three former educators given seven-year prison terms in Atlanta’s landmark test-cheating case are now likely to get lighter sentences because the judge has reconsidered the penalty he imposed and plans to do it over.

Judge Jerry Baxter, who oversaw the months-long cheating trial, has thought about those sentences and believes they may have been too harsh, according to text messages and e-mails his office sent to defense lawyers for some of those convicted.

He gave Tamara Cotman, Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams seven years in prison and 13 years probation, far more than prosecutors requested, on April 14. The former regional directors in the school system were convicted under Georgia’s racketeering law, for cheating on standardized tests.

At the resentencing, Georgia law won’t allow the judge to give them more time, only less.

Scheduling a resentencing when none of the defense lawyers asked for one is unusual. What specifically prompted Baxter’s decision to resentence the three is unknown.

His office sent out a notice late Monday that he wanted the three former regional directors in court for resentencing. Baxter was out of town Tuesday and his office could only say a hearing was scheduled for the afternoon of April 30.

The move raised questions with defense attorneys and legal experts: Is there a problem with the sentence? Did the judge see things differently once he was rested and not in the midst of an emotional debate?

The resentencing has also kept alive a heated debate about whether racketeering charges should have been brought against educators and whether former teachers belong in prison. In the past few weeks, protests have been staged and fundraising efforts have been launched to defend those convicted. Their supporters say cheating on a test is not a crime.

The other side says children were harmed and the sentences are fitting. Abby Martin, whose twins attend Grady High School, fears Baxter will reduce the regional directors’ punishment.

“I probably would have been even tougher,” Martin said. “This cannot be tolerated. A crime was committed.”

Last week, when the judge and lawyers were debating punishment, Baxter exploded because only two of the 11 convicted admitted the jury got it right, that they were guilty under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Ten of the 11 convicted were sentenced last week. The 11th will be sentenced in August because she gave birth earlier this month. Baxter gave lighter sentences to two who admitted guilt, and they won’t go to prison.

The former regional directors were slammed with the maximum amount of time that Georgia’s RICO Act allows: a total of 20 years, with seven spent in prison and the balance on probation. A former principal, assistant principal and testing coordinator and two former teachers were sentenced to prison for one or two years. “This thing was pervasive,” Baxter said.

Judges have changed their minds about sentences, but it happens rarely, legal experts say.

“It’s … not unheard of. It just depends on what the judge has in mind,” said defense attorney Steve Sadow, who is not connected to the APS case.

“I’ve never heard of it before,” said Emory University law professor Kay Levine. “My assumption is some defense attorney filed an appeal saying this sentence is illegal.”

Ken Hodges, a former Dougherty County District Attorney who is now in private practice, said he had only seen this happen once in 25 years.

“We all saw Judge Baxter’s emotions towards the end and that he was clearly, exceedingly frustrated,” Hodges said. “He’s now had … days to reconsider and reflect on it and it may be that he decided he gave them too much.”

The day after sentencing, Cotman’s lawyer, Ben Davis, filed a notice of appeal in which he argued the jury convicted the 11 APS educators with conspiracy to violate RICO but Baxter sentenced them as if they had actually violated the act. While RICO itself carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, if the crime was conspiracy the maximum sentence is cut in half, Davis wrote; 10 years instead of 20. While the indictments list the charge as RICO violation and cite the RICO section of the law, the verdict forms the jury turned in call it conspiracy to violate RICO and don’t include a specific legal citation.

Page Pate, who is not involved with the case, said Baxter could opt to cut the total time of the sentence but not the prison time. The educators have said they will appeal the convictions. This would allow the judge to fix any mistakes before the appeals court gets the cases.

Baxter “can fix that now,” Pate said. “He thought about the case to begin with. It doesn’t really matter if you give somebody 20 years to serve seven or 10 years to serve seven.”