APS defendants should consider plea deals, judge says

Former Atlanta teachers and administrators should “search their souls” and consider taking plea deals on charges related to the nation’s largest cheating scandal, said the judge overseeing the case.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter told defense attorneys Tuesday that those who don’t negotiate agreements with prosecutors to plead guilty ahead of time will likely face a giant trial starting April 21 that could last six months.

He said the case needs to be resolved, and the best way to do that is to put all defendants accused of participating in the cheating conspiracy on trial at once.

The size of the case could shrink if some of the 34 former educators who are facing criminal charges agree to plead guilty in exchange for lesser sentences.

“The state may not want to try this case with 34 people, and they may be reasonable in talking to people and lowering it down,” said Baxter, a former prosecutor. “Talk to the district attorney. I think they would like to cull the case as much as possible. I think the market right now is in your favor.”

The defendants have until early January to decide on plea agreements, and those who haven’t done so by that time should prepare to face a jury, Baxter said.

The educators are accused of conspiring to change answers on Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests so their schools could meet rigorous academic standards set by former Superintendent Beverly Hall and receive bonus pay. Hall is one of the 34 defendants.

“I don’t think anybody in this courtroom actually thinks all 34 current defendants are actually going to go to trial,” said John Floyd, a special assistant district attorney. “This is a case that will get smaller. This is a case that can be managed.”

Defense attorneys pleaded with Baxter to break the case into smaller pieces rather than have all of the defendants go on trial as a group.

But Baxter said he’s “leaning heavily” toward having one trial on the allegation that the defendants participated in a cheating conspiracy. He decided not to make a ruling until after the January plea deal deadline.

One potential problem with a single trial — which Baxter has previously said could be so large that it may need to be held in an abandoned grocery store — would be finding jurors who can dedicate enough time and attention to it, defense attorneys said.

“I don’t know how a jury is going to follow this. … After you get into four months of a trial, jurors can’t follow a specific defendant,” said Brian Steel, who represents former Kennedy Middle School Principal Lucious Brown. “As the length of the trial increases, the quality of the jury comprehension decreases.”

Other defense lawyers said the cheating allegations have already ruined their clients’ teaching careers, and a long trial would prevent them from holding a job during that time.

Baxter responded that he has a duty to the community to move the case forward, and breaking it apart or giving defendants more time before entering pleas would hold up that process.

“At some point, this whole episode needs to be over. That’s my obligation, to keep on going until this thing is in the rearview mirror,” Baxter said. “It’s just the cold, hard truth: This is a once-in-a-lifetime case as far as I’m concerned. You are all in it.”

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