Judge sets trial date for massive APS racketeering case

A judge set a trial date a year from now in the Atlanta test-cheating case Friday and suggested the proceedings may be too big for a courthouse.

Perhaps only partly in jest, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said he may have to hold the trial in a vacant supermarket to accommodate all the defendants.

One by one Friday, more than two dozen defendants, including former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall, entered not guilty pleas to accusations they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests. All told, 35 former APS administrators and educators have been indicted for racketeering, theft by taking, making false statements and influencing witnesses.

Four former APS officials entered not guilty pleas Thursday and the remaining defendants are expected to plead not guilty at a hearing scheduled for May 16.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Interactives, stories, photos and more on our AJC Investigates: Cheating Our Children page

Much as he did Thursday, Baxter quickly resolved a number of disputes and set deadlines and schedules between now and the May 5, 2014, trial date. He chided the Fulton District Attorney’s Office for creating an environment where APS defendants became vilified by the public and he lifted a gag order that was made a condition of the defendants’ bonds.

Before hearing pleas, Baxter asked Special Assistant District Attorney John Floyd for the maximum punishment in the case. When Floyd said a racketeering conviction brings a sentence of between five and 20 years, Baxter paused and then spoke to the entire courtroom.

“This is not an administrative hearing,” the judge told the defendants. “This is felony court. There are great consequences at the end of this thing and everybody needs to be aware of it up front.”

Baxter set a Jan. 6 deadline for defendants to decide whether to plead guilty or go to trial. By then, everyone should have enough information to make such an important decision, he said.

As for the defendants who remain, “We may have to rent an abandoned Kroger to fit everybody. This case is going to be crowded,” Baxter said.

After the March 29 indictment, legal experts predicted Baxter would split up the case into several trials, perhaps dividing groups of defendants by the schools they worked in. But on Friday, at least, Baxter seemed disinclined to do that.

“This case is going to be tried just one time,” he said.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who is not involved in the APS case, said if there is evidence that shows the 35 defendants acted together in a conspiracy, then it makes sense to try them all together.

“But the logistics are going to be brutal,” he said.

Porter wondered how the judge would handle objections from dozens of lawyers during a witness’s trial testimony and how to prepare a witness to be cross-examined by dozens of defense attorneys. Opening statements and closing arguments also will be a challenge.

“Those all become nightmarish scenarios,” Porter said.

When asked what Fulton prosecutors must be hoping for, Porter replied: “Resolve as many cases as you can to make your trial as manageable as possible.”

The defendants now have eight months to decide what to do — whether to fight the charges and face potential prison time or reach deals with prosecutors in exchange for their cooperation.

On Friday, Fulton prosecutors backed off their request that Baxter impose sweeping gag orders on the defense attorneys. Instead, Deputy Assistant District Attorney Christopher Quinn asked Baxter to order attorneys to stop making public statements about the case except when in court or when a lawyer thinks it's necessary to correct an injustice.

Baxter then asked Quinn if he believed in the concept of the presumption of innocence.

Taken aback, Quinn called that “a crazy question” and said it offended him.

“These folks have pretty much been vilified and tried in the court of public opinion, and your office has been leading the charge,” Baxter responded. He noted that he had listened to the district attorney’s hourlong news conference shortly after the indictment was returned.

When Quinn launched into a heated reply, Baxter cut him off. “Don’t raise your voice to me,” he said. “Do you understand?”

Baxter declined to enter an order restricting defense attorneys’ speech but directed lawyers to follow the rules of professional conduct governed by the State Bar of Georgia.

“I want this case to be tried in the courtroom — in the courtroom,” Baxter said. “It may be very difficult … to find a jury that can genuinely give these folks the presumption of innocence.”

Baxter granted a motion jointly filed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News seeking to remove gag orders on the APS defendants that were made a part of their bonds. The orders restricted the administrators and educators from talking to the media and public about the case.

Tom Clyde, a lawyer for the AJC and WSB-TV, said “a core part of being an American citizen” is a defendant’s right to profess his or her innocence.

Quinn countered that the defendants agreed to the condition in exchange for getting their bonds reduced. “This was something they did knowingly and voluntarily,” he said.

Baxter disagreed.

So, the judge asked, they could either post bonds of several million dollars or agree not to talk about the case?

“I’m striking that,” he said.

But Baxter said if anyone “causes problems for me” — such as igniting prejudicial, pretrial publicity — he is going to call that person into court to talk about it.

“Y’all don’t want to upset me, do you?” the judge asked, receiving a chorus of no’s from lawyers throughout the crowded courtroom.