It’s decision time for the remaining 23 defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.
The judge overseeing the racketeering conspiracy case has set a Monday deadline for the former educators to declare whether they will enter into negotiated plea agreements with prosecutors or proceed toward a trial expected to last several months.
So far, 11 defendants have resolved their cases. All but one pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of obstruction and received probation. They also were given first-offender treatment, meaning if they abide by the terms of their probation, they can get their convictions erased. More guilty pleas are expected this week.
Only one defendant, former Gideons Elementary School principal Armstead Salters, pleaded guilty to a felony charge — making false statements and writings. Salters admitted he directed his teachers to change wrong answers on standardized tests to right ones. He was given two years on probation and ordered to complete 1,000 hours of community service.
Each of the remaining defendants face a single racketeering charge that carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison. The indictment accuses the educators of conspiring to falsely inflate scores on standardized tests. Various defendants are also charged with other felonies, such as influencing a witness, making a false statement and theft by taking.
Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Michael Trost, who is not involved in the APS case, said the prospect of a six-month-long trial, a felony conviction and possible prison time must be weighing heavily on those still charged.
“And to anyone who’s still being offered a misdemeanor, first offender and probation, you’d have to think long and hard before you say no to that,” Trost said.
Not all of the 23 remaining defendants are being offered such lenient treatment by Fulton prosecutors. A number of defendants have already declared they will not plead guilty and fight the charges at trial.
Atlanta lawyer Richard Deane, who represents former Superintendent Beverly Hall, declined to comment last week about any discussions he has had with Fulton prosecutors. Previously, Deane said Hall is “absolutely innocent” and vowed to clear her name.
Dwight Thomas, who represents former APS human resources director Millicent Few, said his client will not enter a guilty plea on Monday. “We haven’t reached an agreement at this point in time,” Thomas said last week.
The remaining defendants still under indictment are three regional directors, four principals, one assistant principal, 11 teachers, three testing coordinators and one secretary.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has repeatedly warned the APS defendants about the perils of going to trial and being convicted. During his most recent hearing on Dec. 20, he asked attorney Gerald Griggs why he had not talked to prosecutors about a possible deal for his client, former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson.
Griggs said he did not need to talk to prosecutors because Williams is completely innocent of all charges against her.
Lead prosecutor Fani Willis told Baxter that she intends call to the witness stand about 10 students who are expected to testify that Williamson gave them the answers on their standardized tests.
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