Atlanta educators plead not guilty and prepare for huge trial

Former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and other educators pleaded not guilty Friday to conspiracy charges related to cheating on standardized tests, and a judge told them to prepare for a giant-sized trial to take place in about a year.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said the trial could be so large that it may need to be held in a grocery-store to have enough space for everyone involved. He set a May 5, 2014, trial date.

“We may have to rent an abandoned Kroger to fit everybody,” Baxter said in court. “This case is going to be crowded.”

Twenty-six of the 35 defendants in the case entered not guilty pleas in their first court appearances Friday. A few others already pleaded not guilty Thursday, and some were given until May 16 to enter their pleas.

The former Atlanta teachers and administrators are accused of artificially inflating test scores to gain bonus money and keep their jobs.

A state investigation found that educators cheated on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test by erasing students’ incorrect answers and prompting them to change wrong answers.

Baxter denied a request by prosecutors to put a gag order on defense attorneys, and he struck down bond conditions that prevented defendants from speaking publicly about the case.

He told Deputy District Attorney Christopher Quinn that prosecutors made their accusations in public, and he wants to ensure fairness to the defendants.

“These folks have pretty much been vilified and tried in the court of public opinion, and your office has been leading the charge. … I listened to your press conference” when the indictment was announced, Baxter said. “My goal, and I think my obligation, is to ensure the presumption of innocence.”

Baxter said the case should be tried in a court room, where defendants’ rights will be preserved.

“I think everybody understands that I’m going to be very upset if this case is tried anywhere but in the Kroger or wherever we go,” Baxter said. “Y’all don’t want to upset me, do you?”

The audience in the ceremonial courtroom responded in unison, telling the judge “no.”

The defendants and their lawyers crowded a courtroom Friday as they entered their pleas. One by one, their lawyers walked to the podium and told Baxter they were waiving arraignment and pleading not guilty.

Charges against the defendants include racketeering, theft, making false statements and influencing witnesses. Maximum prison sentences can reach up to 45 years for Hall, and less for educators facing fewer criminal counts.

There’s so much evidence in the case that defendants will have to provide computer drives to hold it all, said Executive Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis. Each defendant will receive all of the evidence, which attorneys in the case have speculated could exceed 1 million pages.

“We’re probably going to be asking that hard drives be delivered,” Willis said. “All the discovery is relevant to them.”

Baxter set a Jan. 6, 2014, deadline for all defendants to enter their final pleas. If they don’t plead guilty by then — possibly after reaching deals with prosecutors in exchange for their cooperation — they should prepare for a trial by jury.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first uncovered evidence of cheating in 2008 and 2009, when statistically improbable gains on test scores were revealed. The AJC investigation led to a state investigation that began gathering evidence that’s now being used in the criminal case.

The state investigation, released in July 2011, concluded that 178 educators had participated in cheating at Atlanta Public Schools. Of those 178, criminal charges have been brought against 35 so far, although prosecutors have said they’re still investigating and could add defendants to the case.