Judge Jerry Baxter holds up a T-shirt he bought for a "dubious achievement award" that he hopes not to give out during the course of the trial. The prosecution laid out its case to kick off the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trialin Fulton County Superior Court, Monday on Sept. 29, 2014. Not all 12 defense lawyers would make opening statements; some planned to reserve theirs until after the prosecution presented its case. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Heard most on Day 1 of APS trial? ‘Conspiracy’ and ‘Beverly Hall’

Former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall’s presence loomed large Monday at the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, even though she wasn’t in the Fulton County courtroom.

Lead prosecutor Fani Willis recounted how a desperate school system wooed Hall in 1999 to close a longstanding achievement gap and how she earned $544,472 in bonus money over a decade, on top of her $279,985 salary.

That set the stage for a swipe from defense attorney Sandy Wallack, who represents former teacher Dessa Curb.

“The state gave a very nice opening (statement) in the trial of Beverly Hall,” Wallack told jurors. “But Beverly Hall is not on trial here.”

Wallack was one of seven defense attorneys to tell jurors their clients should be found not guilty at what’s expected to be a months-long trial. Lawyers for five defendants — including ex-School Reform Team executive directors Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis Williams and Michael Pitts — reserved giving their openings until after the prosecution presents its case.

In his opening, defense attorney Keith Adams, who represents former Dunbar Elementary teacher Diane Buckner-Webb, agreed a crime had been committed and there was indeed a conspiracy.

“I’m charging and accusing the DA’s office of engaging in the conspiracy,” Adams said. The district attorney is relying on witnesses whose credibility is “beyond belief” because they have given markedly differing statements over the course of the investigation, he said.

Adams’ hard-edged delivery was followed by Hurl Taylor, a Vietnam War veteran who pulled out a camouflaged sheet and draped it over his head to remind jurors his client — former testing coordinator Donald Bullock — is cloaked in the presumption of innocence.

Defense attorney Bob Rubin put a photo of Disney movie antagonist Cruella de Vil on an overhead screen to show how prosecutors view his client, former Dobbs Elementary principal Dana Evans.

“Dana Evans never condoned or encouraged cheating,” Rubin said, putting jurors on notice that he plans to call more than 20 witnesses to vouch for Evans’ character.

During their openings, two lawyers brought their clients from the back rows to right in front of the jury so jurors could actually see them.

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The 12 former APS employees on trial in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case engaged in a criminal conspiracy to boost test scores, a prosecutor told jurors in opening statements today.

“This conspiracy was cleverly, cleverly disguised and the purpose of the conspiracy was this – to illegally inflate test scores and create a false, false impression of academic success for many students in the Atlanta Public School system,” prosecutor Fani Willis said. “It was done to those students’ detriment.”

Children were the biggest losers in the conspiracy, Willis said, with thousands affected over the years. Children whose test scores were artificially inflated missed out on extra help, she said. The school system missed out on “millions of dollars” of federal aid that could have been used to help the students, she said.

Willis told jurors that defendants erased answers, changed answers, broke into sealed tests and lied to law enforcement as part of the conspiracy.

At the top of the conspiracy was former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, Willis said. Hall covered up and ignored reports of cheating, prosecutors say. But Hall, who has Stage IV breast cancer, was not present in the courtroom. She may be tried at a later date if her health improves.

In an opening statement lasting more than two hours, Willis laid out the evidence the state plans to present against the defendants.

Students will testify that teachers told them the right answers on state standardized tests. Some of Hall’s top aides will testify about the conspiracy. And other APS employees will testify that they worked with defendants to alter tests.

“They will put you in the room with people changing answers” she said.

Lawyers for seven of the defendants will present their opening statements starting this afternoon.

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Judge Jerry Baxter heard this morning from two jurors in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial who asked to be excused from serving.

One is a single mother who said she may be late in the morning or leave late to take her son to or from school and other activities. Baxter excused her from serving.

“You’re excused and you can go. You can go back up to north Fulton County,” he said.

“You get these problems and they fester and they get mad and they help nobody,” Baxter said in response to prosecutors’ objections.

The other runs two businesses and had concerns about his income and employment during the trial. He was not excused.

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