Prosecutors in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial are encountering a recurring problem: key witnesses aren’t adhering to what they swore to be the truth when they entered guilty pleas.
Former Kennedy Middle School principal Lucious Brown became the third such witness Tuesday when he finished two days of testimony. Prosecutors were expecting Brown, now serving two years on probation, to be a key witness against former regional supervisor Sharon Davis-Williams, one of 12 defendants on trial.
“He’s got a problem,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said before Brown resumed testifying in the morning. On Monday, Brown had not testified that he changed students’ test answers because of pressure from Davis-Williams, when he made such an assertion in his plea agreement, the judge noted.
Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bill Morrison said people who plead guilty and agree to cooperate with the prosecution do change their minds and their testimony.
“It happens, although it’s certainly the exception to the rule,” said Morrison, who is not involved in the case. If prosecutors have not been prepping these witnesses since they pleaded guilty months ago, they need to sit down with them shortly before they testify to see what they’re going to say on the witness stand, he said.
The conflicting statements could be damaging to the prosecution if there is not enough other evidence to bolster their case, Morrison said. “But prosecutors have also called this a ‘cleverly disguised conspiracy,’ so they could argue this is the classic example of a tacit understanding, where no one explicitly ordered cheating or even used the word ‘cheat.’”
Baxter made the observation that Brown had given conflicting versions of what happened after defense attorneys protested his decision to designate Brown as a “hostile” prosecution witness. Akil Secret, who represents former assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan, argued that Brown had so far followed the script in his plea agreement “to a T.”
“No, he has not,” Baxter interjected.
Baxter said he will continue calling it like he sees it if more witnesses who pleaded guilty appear to back off what’s in their agreements. “If I think they are lying, then the state can ask me,” he said. “And I’ll say go ahead and cross-examine them.”
Earlier this month, Baxter apparently believed testimony given by former principal Armstead Salters and testing coordinator Sheridan Rogers did not match what they swore to be the truth in plea deals. So the judge stopped the clock on their probation sentences, reserving the time left to be used for potentially more severe punishment in the future if he finds they were not being truthful.
On Tuesday, Baxter did not indicate whether he would do the same thing with Brown.
Brown did acknowledge that he felt pressure from above, explaining he could get a bad evaluation if Kennedy Middle School’s test scores continued to lag. He also said he was not backing off his plea deal.
But Rucker wanted to hear Brown say the words — that Davis-Williams applied overbearing pressure. So he asked him again.
She didn’t yell at me, Brown answered. “The pressure was there to succeed. … Did I answer the question properly?”
Rucker, who would later raise his voice at Brown in apparent frustration, asked once more.
“Pressure comes with the job,” Brown replied.
“Are you trying to protect Sharon Davis-Williams?” Rucker eventually asked. “No,” Brown said.
When Rucker finished his questioning, Baxter looked to Davis-Williams’ attorney, Teresa Mann, so she could begin her cross-examination. “No questions, your honor,” Mann said, a response that spoke volumes about Brown’s testimony.
Tameka Goodson, who followed Brown to the stand, proved an exception. The former Kennedy science teacher stuck to details outlined in the agreement she entered when pleading guilty last December.
She provided far more detail about pressure, testifying that one day in 2008 the normally stoic Brown, whom she described as a friend, returned from a meeting with Davis-Williams looking like he’d been crying. She asked what was wrong.
“If we don’t bring the test scores up, they’re closing Kennedy,” Brown said, Goodson testified.
That prompted them, Goodson said, to change students’ answers, working with former Kennedy secretary Carol Dennis and substitute teacher Barbara McDaniel. Even though they agreed to take their secret to their graves, McDaniel, who is now deceased, eventually told investigators about the cheating.
Mann, this time electing to cross-examine the witness, told Goodson that the details in her plea agreement differed from those in Brown’s. In his agreement, Brown said Goodson helped the group change answers in 2008 and once again in 2009, Mann said.
When asked about that, Goodson replied, “I didn’t cheat in 2009.”
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