Beverly Hall’s trial delayed until August

In an extraordinary drama that unfolded without Beverly Hall in the courtroom, two cancer specialists on Monday differed whether the former superintendent could withstand a trial next month in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case.

The judge, after hearing wrenching testimony about Hall’s condition and a courtroom outburst by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, delayed the trial until August.

At Monday’s hearing, the prosecution’s hired oncologist testified the time to try Hall is now, because she might be dead in a few months. Hall’s own physician, who has been treating Hall’s Stage IV breast cancer since 2011, countered that forcing Hall to stand trial next month could kill her.

“I just told her Friday her cancer is much worse,” said Dr. Laura Weakland of Atlanta Cancer Specialists. “She’s a terminally ill patient. … I can’t tell you when (she will die). I hope it’s a long time.”

Dr. James Stark, the Suffolk, Va., oncologist retained by prosecutors, said, “It’s highly unlikely any more anti-cancer therapy is going to be of any help to this lady.” Asked whether Hall would be better prepared to stand trial later this year, Stark replied, “I think she’ll be less ready, if she’s even alive.”

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter’s decision means that the trial, initially set to begin next month, will be delayed for Hall and a dozen other former educators and administrators charged in the test-cheating case.

The remaining defendants stand indicted for engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate students’ scores on standardized tests. In recent months, 21 co-defendants pleaded guilty to reduced charges and received probation.

Baxter said he convened Monday’s hearing to shine a light on an important matter — a request to delay the long-awaited trial. At one point, Baxter wondered whether Hall could stand trial while being allowed to stay at home but in contact with her lawyers in the courtroom. Prosecutors suggested that perhaps Hall could stand trial four days a week with shorter hours.

“No matter how you cut it, either way this is a serious, serious situation,” Baxter said. “It is what it is.”

Hall’s cancer has spread to her liver and her bones, where it has progressed at a surprising rate, Weakland said. It is also in her spine and hip, the doctor said.

“More therapy is needed to keep her alive,” Weakland said. “We’re at a crossroads right now. Her disease has worsened.”

Putting Hall on trial so soon would put her life at risk by exposing her to more disease and infection, she said. On Weakland’s advice, Hall chose not to attend Monday’s hearing.

Weakland said she had planned to insert a catheter into Hall’s chest on Monday to begin new intravenous chemotherapy. But Monday’s hearing delayed that procedure, and the new chemotherapy will begin in a week, she said.

“I’ve been trying so hard to get this patient ready to go to trial, because that is her wish,” Weakland testified.

Weakland said she thought there was a 30 to 40 percent chance the new treatment could help stabilize Hall. “I’m a very positive person,” she said. “I expect it to get better.”

But Stark, a Suffolk, Va., oncologist, did not share her optimism.

Having reviewed Hall’s medical records, Stark said he thought her chance of survival was far less than Weakland’s assessment.

“The chances of this (new) drug helping her are small,” he testified. “It’s highly unlikely any more anti-cancer therapy is going to be of any help to this lady. … If we are going to try her, we should do it tomorrow. She’s ill. She’s frail. But I think it’s doable.”

Stark, who said he has treated thousands of cancer patients, questioned the wisdom of providing any further treatment to Hall, suggesting the best course for her is hospice care. But he also acknowledged that it was Hall’s decision what to do next.

Under cross-examination, Stark acknowledged that he typically charges $500 an hour to testify as an expert in court. In this case, he said, he was charging Fulton County a “package deal” of $6,000 to review Hall’s records and come testify at Monday’s hearing.

George Lawson, a defense attorney for former regional director Michael Pitts, said he could not believe the state used Stark as a witness.

“I’ve never seen an expert give a more callous opinion on any subject,” he said after the hearing. “You talk about a hired gun. He had no compassion for another human being who is fighting for her life.”

Richard Deane, Hall’s lead attorney, also condemned Stark’s testimony. “For the state to say we should rush to trial because she’s going to die, that ought to be unheard of,” Deane told Baxter.

When he noted that Weakland had asked for the postponement to try and save Hall’s life, Andrew Young bellowed, “Good,” from his front-row seat in the courtroom gallery.

Baxter, displeased with the outburst, told Young he had to leave the courtroom. But as a deputy approached, Baxter relented and allowed Young to speak.

Young called the prosecution against Hall a waste of taxpayer money. “Let God judge her,” he said of Hall. “Justice has to have some mercy in it for it to be relevant.”

Baxter then addressed Young, saying he had witnessed numerous careers ruined by the test-cheating scandal. “I think it should proceed before a jury of their peers,” the judge said. “The question is now when.”

At the close of the hearing, Baxter delayed the trial four months until August. He then told Deane, “I hope this treatment works.”