With oncologists testifying in unsettling detail about the cancer spreading through Beverly Hall’s body, many community leaders are asking openly whether Hall’s prosecution is devolving into a persecution.
The question confronting the court, the parties to the case, indeed the whole of metro Atlanta, is brutally simple: Must Hall stand trial in the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating scandal, or should the state drop the case and allow her to die in peace?
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young raised that question during a hearing Monday on whether Hall’s trial should be delayed. The former APS superintendent is suffering from Stage IV breast cancer that is now terminal, her oncologist said.
Without warning — or fear of being found in contempt — Young stood and told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter it would be best if Hall’s trial never took place.
“She’s got to stand before God before long,” Young said. “Both sides say it. Let God judge her.”
Young made his plea from the front row of the courtroom gallery which was filled with civil rights leaders, Hall’s supporters and lawyers representing other defendants in the cheating case.
“Andy said what a lot of people in the courtroom were thinking,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, who was also in the courtroom. “She is terminally ill. She is going to die. A trial will only accelerate her death. Let this go.”
Mike Bowers, one of the governor’s special investigators who uncovered test-cheating at Atlanta schools, says Young could not have been more wrong.
“What happened to the children because of years of misconduct that emanated from Dr. Hall’s office was an absolute scandal,” said Bowers, a former state attorney general. “I also saw very vulnerable people — most of them single moms — become devastated by the pressure and feel like they had no choice but to cheat. Anybody who wants to sweep that under the rug should be ashamed of himself.”
Bowers said he feels great sympathy for Hall because she is so ill.
“I pray for her, I really do,” he said. “But that doesn’t relieve anyone from being held accountable before the law.”
DA says prosecution should continue
Hall, 67, stands indicted for engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to improperly inflate students’ scores on standardized tests. She and a dozen other co-defendants were scheduled to go to trial in late May, but on Monday Baxter postponed the trial until August, saying he hoped the new round of Hall’s chemotherapy treatment works.
Since plea negotiations broke down last month, Hall has learned from her doctor that her condition has worsened. Her lawyers then sought to delay the trial by six to eight months, saying requiring Hall to stand trial so soon could put her life at risk.
Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard continues to believe the test-cheating case should be tried in court and heard by a jury, he said in a statement last week.
“The issues regarding the continuance and Dr. Hall’s unfortunate health problems were openly discussed and litigated in response to her request for an eight-month delay rather than a full dismissal as others have suggested,” Howard said. “Under these difficult circumstances, we believe this new trial date coupled with shortened court days and reduced court hours offers the best opportunity for a fair resolution of this case for all parties.”
For some of the parents of the thousands of APS students who were directly affected by the cheating scandal, compassion has been hard to muster.
Southwest Atlanta parent Shawnna Hayes-Tavares has three children in the Atlanta Public Schools. When the cheating scandal erupted, her children attended two of the worst-offending schools in the system.
“We all have a level of empathy as it relates to her health, but we don’t know what will happen in six months. Will she be better or worse?” Hayes-Tavares said. “I am not saying she should go to jail, but she deserves her day in court, because people who do wrong have to be held accountable. And we need closure. I know she is stressed out. I am stressed out too.”
‘Assault by the state on a sick person’
Young made his plea during a highly unusual hearing in which lawyers for Hall sought a delay of her trial because of the aggressive cancer she is battling.
Seated next to Young was the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who said they had been invited to court by members of Hall’s defense team.
“Her people thought it would be strategically wise to show the judge that she had community support for a postponement,” Lowery said. “It felt like we were on a mission of mercy. Standing up for a friend who was sick, providing comfort and defending an assault by the state on a sick person. … I am almost sure that the courtroom, which was full, impressed the judge.”
Even before Young’s startling interruption, the hearing had turned remarkable because it featured dueling oncologists — one hired by the state and Hall’s own treating physician.
Hall’s oncologist, Dr. Laura Weakland, testified that the former superintendent’s cancer has spread to her liver and her bones, necessitating a new round of aggressive chemotherapy.
If Hall’s cancer can be stabilized, Weakland said, it’s possible the former superintendent could stand trial later this year.
‘If we are going to try her, we should do it tomorrow’
But Dr. James Stark, a Virginia oncologist paid $6,000 to testify for the prosecution as an expert witness, questioned the wisdom of giving Hall more treatment.
“It’s highly unlikely any more anti-cancer therapy is going to be of any help to this lady,” Stark testified. “ … If we are going to try her, we should do it tomorrow. She’s ill. She’s frail. But I think it’s doable.”
Lowery said Stark’s expert testimony was the worst he’d ever heard.
“That is a terrible thing to say,” Lowery said, adding that at that point Hall’s supporters were becoming agitated. “Coming into this, we expected a good prosecutor, not a persecutor.”
‘It would be merciful if this trial never took place’
At the close of testimony, Hall’s lead attorney, Richard Deane, told Judge Baxter that he was seeking to delay the trial so doctors could try to save Hall’s life.
Baxter responded by saying if he agreed to take the route suggested by Deane, it’s possible Hall’s case would never go to trial.
Before Deane could respond, Young said from his front-row seat, “Good,” his distinctive voice carrying across the courtroom.
“Who said ‘Good’?” asked Baxter, clearly displeased.
Baxter told Young he had to leave the courtroom. As a deputy approached to usher him outside, the former mayor, U.N. Ambassador and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King did not turn to leave.
Instead, Young looked up to Baxter and said, “It would be merciful for this court, these prosecutors and this whole city if this trial never took place.”
“We got to put the city back together,” Young added. “ … I’m just saying it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money.”
Baxter thanked Young for his opinion but said he believed the case should go to trial.
‘Who had mercy on the children?’
Lowery continued to express hope that Hall will never have to face a jury.
“She wants her day in court and we want her to have her day in court,” he said. “But the testimony that came from her doctor is that this is a stressful experience and hinders her ability to respond and have an intelligent defense. That is not justice.”
Community activist Christi Jackson said Young and Lowery’s advocacy is misguided.
“Who had mercy on the children who were shafted, embarrassed and humiliated?” Jackson said.
“Is there a plan to make sure that our children can write their own names legibly? Who plans to go to court for the young black men who fail to finish high school? Who in this world, in this country, will have mercy on them?”
Get the latest news on Georgia and metro Atlanta legal affairs, including updates on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial, on Twitter: @AJCcourts.
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