Judge tries to contain massive Atlanta cheating case

The judge overseeing the Atlanta test-cheating scandal told prosecutors Thursday to “get real” about narrowing down the giant case, in which they listed 2,440 potential witnesses in a phone-book-sized court filing.

“I was a little taken aback by the number of witnesses,” Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter told Fulton County prosecutors. “We need to hone this list down. You’re not going to call 2,500 witnesses. I mean, that’s crazy. You need to get real.”

Baxter suggested earlier this month that the case may be so large that the trial, scheduled for a year from now, may have to be held in a grocery store to fit everyone involved.

Thirty-five former Atlanta Public Schools teachers and administrators face racketeering, theft and other charges based on accusations that they inflated standardized test scores to meet academic targets and receive bonus money. All of them, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, have pleaded not guilty.

Baxter said the defendants should know what evidence will be brought against them.

He ordered prosecutors, who sent the inch-thick witness list to defense attorneys Wednesday, to put together one-page summaries for each of the potential witnesses by the end of the month. The summaries should include what relevant testimony each witness will bring and who they will be testifying against.

Prosecutors also should reveal which witnesses they’ll definitely call to testify and which ones are only possibilities, Baxter said. He asked lawyers on both sides to figure out how to handle more than 1 million pages of documents in the case.

Senior Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis noted that more than 70 Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents were involved in the probe, making it the agency’s largest investigation since the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

The case involves “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of children” who were interviewed by authorities, Willis said, and some of them told investigators that their teachers instructed them to cheat on standardized tests. She also cited the governor’s special investigation, administrative tribunal hearings and internal Atlanta Public Schools investigations that targeted test cheating.

“It’s a barrage of documents coming from a lot of different sources,” she said.

Defense attorney Bruce Harvey said after Thursday’s court hearing that prosecutors are trying to gather evidence about widespread cheating throughout Atlanta Public Schools and pin it on the 35 defendants.

“It names particular individuals, but the problem is systemic,” said Harvey, who represents former Dunbar Elementary testing coordinator Lera Middlebrooks and former Venetian Hills Elementary Principal Clarietta Davis. “It’s overwhelming. It’s extraordinary. It’s unheard of. I’ve never seen a witness list of 2,440 witnesses in 36 years of practicing law.”

Baxter told prosecutors to winnow their information as best they can to help the defendants understand whether there is solid evidence against them.

Prosecutors should clarify what documents they plan to use to prove a conspiracy and “not just drive up a tractor-trailer and dump everything out and tell lawyers to get in the haystack and try to find the needles.”

The district attorney’s office already reviewed the case for two years before presenting it to a grand jury, Baxter said. The grand jury handed up indictments March 29.

“You know the outline of your case,” he said. “You have some idea of how you’re going to present this case and what you’re going to put into evidence. That needs to be highlighted.”

But the case may not be as daunting as prosecutors are making it appear, said defense attorney Gerald Griggs, who represents former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson and Parks Middle School teacher Starlette Mitchell.

“The evidence is that these people did not participate in widespread cheating,” Griggs said after the hearing. “I’m not overwhelmed because I know the truth. The truth is that my clients did not cheat.”

The judge gave prosecutors until the end of the month to craft a plan for how to compile and turn over piles of evidence in the case.

Willis said she was working six days a week, trying her best to organize the evidence and testimony that prosecutors expect to introduce at trial.

“It’s a huge endeavor,” she said.

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