The Fulton County district attorney’s office got the wrong person when it mistakenly agreed to seal one criminal record in the Atlanta test-cheating case, and that error also put the files of nearly three dozen other defendants out of public view for several weeks.
The flub happened when prosecutors received a request to seal an arrest record from a woman who has the same name as a former teacher convicted of racketeering. An unnamed employee in the district attorney’s office mistook the applicant for former Dobbs Elementary School teacher Angela Williamson, and prosecutors consented to hide the ex-teacher’s record even as she appeals her conviction and before she has served her two-year prison sentence.
VIDEO: Previous coverage on the APS cheating scandal
The district attorney’s office on Wednesday requested and received an order unsealing the documents, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered the missing files and asked questions.
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In 2015, 11 of 12 former APS administrators and teachers were convicted of racketeering. Williamson was sentenced to two years in prison and three years probation.
Fellow teachers testified she taught them how to cheat on state tests. Students testified that Williamson threatened them not to tell anyone she gave them answers. That was one of the ways the guilty educators inflated scores to get bonuses and raises based on fake test results.
The trial was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history, but for several weeks last month, online records related to it — not just to Williamson but to other defendants, too — disappeared from sight as if the months of testimony had never happened.
“Thank you for calling to our attention the sealing of the entire file in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal case. After investigating this matter, we have discovered that the order granting the sealing of such record was done in error,” District Attorney Paul Howard said, in a written statement. “Because Ms. Williamson never started or completed the service of her sentence, she was not entitled to a records restriction as was erroneously consented to by the District Attorney’s Office.”
At first, nobody could explain why records were hidden.
Before the AJC obtained a copy of the consent order sealing Williamson’s case, a district attorney’s spokesman twice suggested that the records had been hidden because they contained information about minors or child witnesses.
No one said how the mistake was really made until an AJC open-records request uncovered the name mix-up.
Williamson’s attorney said he never asked for her files to be made secret. Senior Assistant District Attorney Marc Mallon, who signed off on the order to seal Williamson’s criminal records, said he didn’t know who made the request but said: “We don’t initiate these. We don’t do these on our own. Somebody had to request this relief in some form or fashion.”
Turns out, it was a different Angela Williamson who wanted to seal records in an unrelated case from 1998.
The district attorney’s office acknowledged the name mix-up Thursday, after the AJC received the other Williamson’s application to restrict access to her record. The application clearly shows the case involved a different crime.
Mallon had said earlier that the district attorney’s office has an administrative process to handle requests to seal court records, and confirms a defendant is entitled to have the case sealed before consenting.
After acknowledging the name mistake, district attorney office spokesman Chris Hopper said Howard “has already addressed this issue” and “made some immediate changes to protocols and procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Hopper did not elaborate on those changes.
Hopper said the woman who actually filed the request had her record restricted.
But her request put the unrelated APS case records out of sight.
On March 26, Mallon signed off on a consent order to seal ex-teacher Williamson’s criminal records in the APS case. On April 9, a week before the Georgia Supreme Court rejected Williamson’s petition for an appeal, a Fulton County magistrate judge’s order was filed. It found that the harm to Williamson’s privacy “clearly outweighs the public interest in the criminal history record information being publicly available.”
Williamson’s attorney, Gerald Griggs, said on Thursday he never asked for her record to be sealed, and knew nothing about it until a reporter told him.
“Why is all this being done without my knowledge?” Griggs said.
The court order was only to seal Williamson’s case, but the records related to the other 34 educators in the same indictment vanished, too.
Mallon said he “completely missed” that Williamson’s case involved co-defendants.
In the days before a new online filing system was started, records could only be sealed by indictment number, not by defendants’ names, said Mallon.
“All for one and one for all,” he said. “If one person got sealed, then the whole file did for everybody else. That probably gave somebody some benefits that they weren’t entitled to … but we didn’t know how to do it.”
The sealed records caused much confusion.
When told Wednesday that the record was no longer available for public viewing, Griggs said, “Ms. Williamson is happy about the opportunity to regain her life and clear her name. The fact that records have been removed and sealed is a step in the right direction to exonerating an innocent woman.”
But then on Thursday, after the record had been unsealed, a frustrated Griggs said, “My client still insists on her innocence, and we question why these actions are taking place without my knowledge while we’re appealing to the United States Supreme Court.”
All the defendants found guilty in the APS test cheating case were sentenced according to the Georgia First Offender Act. Under that law, a case is in abeyance until a sentence is completed, and then it is closed without any public record of the crime.
The order sealing Williamson’s records, which was agreed to by the district attorney’s office, cited the First Offenders Act.
But that was done in error because Williamson is not eligible to have her case sealed since she has not completed her sentence, according to a subsequent order to unseal the records and Howard’s statement to the AJC.
The previous consent order “was submitted and entered in error,” states the Wednesday order unsealing the files.
Griggs, who said he did not ask for his client’s case to be sealed, noted, however, that a 2016 change in the law allows first offenders such as Williamson to ask that their records be sealed while they serve their sentences, rather than waiting until they had served all their prison time and probation.
Gov. Nathan Deal said he proposed the change so offenders could get jobs that otherwise might not be open to them because of a criminal record.
Williamson is working at a day care center.
The AJC discovered the missing files while reporting in April about the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision not to hear appeals by Williamson and former APS administrator Tamara Cotman, both of whom are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their cases.
Even the public and media affairs manager for the county court clerk said he couldn’t view the files while they were closed under the first court order.
Officials told an AJC reporter that while the records of other defendants weren’t technically sealed, access to them would require requesting a specific file or visiting the courthouse in person.