Judge gives convicted Atlanta school cheaters a lesson

We followed the story every step of the way

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been digging into Atlanta Public Schools test results since 2008, when our analysis discovered unusual score changes at several area schools. It was our reporting that first put the spotlight on the problem. We’ve covered every development since then in depth and still are. You can read our comprehensive coverage of the case online, including recaps of the case, the people involved and view photos and interactive features such as a map and timeline; video interviews and more on myAJC.com.

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Catch up: Get the latest details about the trial, how the scandal was uncovered and its effects on schools at AJC.com and myAJC.com.

The longest criminal trial in Georgia history ended Tuesday with two former educators admitting guilt in the nation’s largest test-cheating conspiracy and eight others proclaiming innocence as a judge ordered them to prison.

However, the Fulton County Jail released all of them by 8:30 p.m., as they posted appeal bonds or met other conditions of the judge’s sentencing.

As they left the jail, the convicted former educators refused to acknowledge the presence of a knot of reporters waiting for their release.

When Judge Jerry Baxter delivered his first sentence — seven years in prison — to Sharon Davis-Williams, a former Atlanta Public Schools administrator, a young woman fled the courtroom, her cries carrying from the hallway outside. National publications including the New York Times noted the sentences in the conclusion to the years-long drama.

The sentencing of educators in the racketeering case was so controversial that it drew prized lights of Atlanta's civil society: former mayor, congressman and U.S. ambassador Andrew Young had pleaded for mercy on Monday, saying the educators had been caught in a "trap" that was part of an attack on public education. A daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. volunteered to help out with a program to help the children that had been harmed.

Baxter, citing children robbed of an educational chance to flee impoverished lives, was resolute in supporting the jury’s findings of guilt. But he wavered Monday when he found out District Attorney Paul Howard tried to work out deals over the weekend including lower sentences. At first, Baxter exploded in anger, accusing Howard of selling out to public pressure, according to those in the judge’s chamber.

In court later, Baxter softened his tone and encouraged the convicted educators to take the deal, giving them another day to work out details. They were given a choice: publicly admit guilt and waive their right to appeal or get a harsher sentence from the irascible Baxter.

When most spurned the offered deals, he dropped the hammer. His sentence for Davis-Williams Tuesday was more than twice as long as the prosecution had recommended.

“I just wanted people to accept responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

However, all ten had posted bond and were out of the Fulton County Jail by 8:30 p.m.

Baxter shocked many Atlantans two weeks ago when he ordered the well-dressed former educators handcuffed and hauled to jail after the jury returned its verdicts. On Tuesday, he said he hoped two weeks in jail between their convictions and sentencings would give them insight into their futures if they did not take the prosecution’s deal.

Eight refused.

“Apparently it didn’t move them,” he said.

Those he sentenced plan appeals. Baxter agreed to release them on bond until the appeals are exhausted, which could be two to three years. Just producing the required transcript of the trial that ran from August, when jury selection started, could take a year. It’s expected to be about 20,000 pages.

After the courtroom cleared Tuesday afternoon, District Attorney Paul Howard announced that the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose name was invoked by both sides during the trial, and the well-known Rev. Gerald Durley would lead a program to help the students hurt by the cheating. Many of them are young adults now.

King said the 7-year sentences seemed harsh, but she focused her attention on the victims.

“I want to challenge political leaders because I feel like the blood is on our hands,” she said. “I think we have not done enough.”

Two of the convicted educators accepted responsibility and apologized for their roles in the cheating conspiracy, and they avoided going to prison. Former Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School testing coordinator Donald Bullock will spend weekends for six months in the Fulton County Jail, and and he must perform 1,500 of community service, either helping Fulton jail inmates earn their GEDs or working with the DA’s Office to help students hurt by the cheating.

Bullock’s lawyer, Hurl Taylor, said Bullock hopes to eventually return to teaching.

Former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland first balked at the deal, but decided to follow Bullock’s example after seeing the stiff sentences come down. She admitted guilt, apologized and waived her right to appeal. Baxter sentenced to five years on probation and gave her an at-home curfew of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. her first year.

All were sentenced as first offenders, which means their criminal convictions will be erased when they complete sentences and probation.

One remains to be sentenced: Shani Robinson, a former teacher who gave birth on Saturday. She will be sentenced in August for racketeering and making false statements and writings.

The judge’s decisions followed days of backroom maneuvering that started during the weekend with Howard’s offer. Howard’s lawyers summoned defense attorneys to discuss the deal — a recommendation of home confinement or weekends in jail if they would accept culpability.

The attorneys parted Sunday without an agreement.

They were at the judge’s office Monday morning. Baxter was angry, mostly with Howard for agreeing to seemingly light punishment, several in the room acknowledged. Baxter questioned the DA, asking who “got to” him. In the courtroom, Baxter demanded that Howard be in court as the spokesman for the government, but the judge later apologized over his anger.

On Tuesday, Howard said he didn’t take Baxter’s harsh words to heart and said Baxter was angry at hearing of the proposal from the media. “I really think somebody didn’t explain it to him,” Howard said.

But the DA acknowledged he got many calls from those wanting him to back off the educators, including his mother, who was a teacher. There was a vigil last week during which Howard’s phone number was shared along with requests to call his office.

“I listened to our community leaders. Some spoke softly. Some screamed,” Howard said.

Baxter was clearly annoyed Tuesday when the educators spurned the offered deal, and he was not interested in more testimony or arguments for mercy.

Bullock was first. His lawyer started by explaining why Bullock wanted to accept responsibility even though until Tuesday he had insisted he was innocent.

“He’s going to need to ‘fess up,” Baxter told Bullock’s lawyer, Hurl Taylor. “I don’t want to waste time if he’s not going to bare his soul here for what he did. If he does, I’m going to grant him mercy.”

Bullock read an apology that had been crafted in the negotiations with Howard’s office. “I accept responsibility … and am, in fact, guilty,” read Bullock. Baxter said he could start his weekend jail service after attending his son’s graduation.

Within 30 days, the lawyers must notify Baxter of their intent to appeal. The transcript will have to be prepared and filed. Some of the former educators may need new lawyers for the next stage, since one line of attack would be the quality of their representation at trial.

John Petrey, a former DeKalb County prosecutor, said issues for appeal “are going to be things that don’t stand out to those of us who watch from afar.”

Ben Davis, who represented regional supervisor Tamara Cotman, plans to challenged Baxter’s approach to sentencing. Baxter used the RICO statute to sentence, which allows for five to 20 years in prison, and Davis said Cotman was convicted of conspiracy to commit RICO, which would cut the sentencing option in half. Cotman was sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 years on probation.

Baxter blasted Davis, saying Cotman and the other regional executives were “at the very top. Everybody in the education system at APS knew cheating was going on. She’s been convicted and she is at the top of the food chain. Your client ran numerous fine educators out, removed them, fired them. She was responsible.”

Bob Rubin, who represented Evans, said a key issue for appeal will be use of the statements the educators made to investigators. Former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was charged but died of cancer before she could go to trial, sent out a districtwide message that cooperation with investigators was mandatory and anyone who balked would lose their jobs.

Rubin said that violated a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that anything an employee says when answering questions in an administrative investigation cannot be used to bring criminal charges because those statements were not voluntary.

Rubin had raised that so-called Garrity Rule earlier in the case.

“He seemed to receptive to the argument at the time of the hearing but the order he wrote totally flip-flopped. He ruled against us,” Rubin said.

Cartersville trial attorney Lester Tate, a past president of the Georgia Bar Association, said the state Court of Appeals overturns jury verdicts only in one of every five times. Still, “It’s hard to give an exact analysis unless you know what each defendant is going to raise,” said Tate, who was not involved in the case.

Vernetta Nuriddin, who lives in southwest Atlanta, was satisfied with the jail time for the former educators.

“It sets a precedent to say cheating is unlawful,” said Nuriddin, who has three children in Atlanta charter schools. She said the seven-year prison terms for the top three administrators seemed harsh, but she said some incarceration was appropriate because they didn’t accept responsibility.

“We wanted them to take ownership,” she said.