U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear APS cheating case brought by 2 defendants

Two former Atlanta Public Schools’ educators are expected to be the first to go to prison for a massive cheating scandal after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of their 2015 convictions.

The Supreme Court decided Monday to not review the case against Tamara Cotman and Angela Williamson, among the 11 former teachers and administrators found guilty of racketeering more than three years ago.

The decision means Cotman and Williamson will be required to turn themselves in to serve their prison sentences, said Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr. Cotman was sentenced to three years in prison and Williamson to two years. They have remained free on bond during the appeal process.

Howard said both women had multiple chances to avoid prison by accepting a plea deal and later, in an unusual offer, by admitting responsibility after the verdict.

Instead, Cotman and Williamson fought all the way to the nation’s highest court.

“These defendants were literally begged by the court several times during the trial,” Howard said, of the chance to enter a plea. “They refused to do it, and now here we are three years later at this circumstance.”

In 2015, a Fulton County jury found Cotman, who worked as a school reform team executive director, and Williamson, a former Dobbs Elementary teacher, guilty in the high-profile case against educators who corrected student answers on standardized tests and collected bonuses and raises based on the falsely inflated scores.

Williamson also was found guilty of four counts of false statements and writings and false swearing.

The women were the only two of the 11 convicted of racketeering who went directly to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which last year upheld their convictions.

In April, the Supreme Court of Georgia said it would not hear an appeal, and Cotman and Williamson then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the Supreme Court also declined to review the matter, issuing its order without comment, which is how the court disposes of many cases brought before it.

“Typically, the Supreme Court is the end of the road,” said Williamson’s attorney, Gerald Griggs, who said he was “disappointed” in the result. “We need to regroup.”

Griggs expects it to take a few weeks for the formal notice of the court’s decision to make its way back to the lower courts. If attorneys don’t find some other legal avenue, he said his client would have to turn herself in to authorities.

In a petition submitted to the Supreme Court in July, Cotman and Williamson’s attorneys argued the jury received improper instructions before returning the verdict, and they brought up a question of double jeopardy, which bars a defendant acquitted of a crime from being retried for the same offense.

In a separate trial connected to the cheating scandal that took place before the major 2015 verdict, Cotman had been found not guilty of trying to influence a witness. Her attorney argued the prosecution presented the same witnesses and “repeated the same theory presented in the first trial,” according to court documents.

Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutors said Cotman failed to report cheating complaints and punished those who reported concerns. At trial, a former reading specialist said she was transferred against her wishes to another school because her students weren’t making enough progress. She testified that Cotman told her the transfer was because she “wasn’t playing for the right team.”

Teachers at Dobbs Elementary testified Williamson taught them to cheat and said they saw her cheating. Several students also said the former teacher gave them exam answers and said they didn’t report her because she told them: “If you tell anyone, that will be the last person you tell, I promise you that,” according to court documents.

The cheating scandal was exposed a decade ago when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported about suspicious scores on state standardized tests.

An ensuing state investigation found evidence of widespread cheating in Atlanta schools.

The indictment brought charges against 35 educators, 21 of whom pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Two people, including former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, died before going to trial.

All but one of the 12 who went to trial were found guilty of racketeering. Of the 11 convicted, two admitted guilt in court, a move that brought lighter punishments, including weekend jail time for one, and kept them out of prison.

The remaining seven defendants have indicated their plans to seek a new trial in Fulton County Superior Court and have remained free on bond. There’s been no activity on the case for some time, Howard said.

His office on Monday requested the court dismiss the appeal or put it on a calendar to hasten its resolution.

“Maybe these defendants will take some level of responsibility so that this office and this community can move forward,” Howard said.