Jury gets case in Cotman trial

Former Atlanta Public Schools regional director Tamara Cotman was part of a massive cover-up in a system intent on suppressing the truth about widespread test cheating, a prosecutor said Thursday.

Cotman knew about test cheating that robbed schoolchildren of their educations, Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis said. Cotman turned a blind eye to the cheating and then intimidated witnesses who were going to be asked about it, Willis said.

“Cheating was going on, and she intended to hinder the exposure of it … because it benefited her, and she did it on the backs of babies,” the prosecutor said during a highly charged closing argument.

Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, asked jurors not to get caught up in emotional arguments about cheating.

“She ain’t charged with cheating,” Davis said of his client. “No one ever testified that Ms. Cotman told them to cheat. This case is not about cheating.”

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated about four hours Thursday without reaching a verdict. They will reassemble Friday morning.

The outcome of Cotman’s case could influence the cases of the other 33 former APS officials and administrators charged in a sweeping racketeering conspiracy that is to be tried next year. If prosecutors obtain a conviction, it may lead some defendants to begin plea negotiations. An acquittal of Cotman may embolden other defendants to continue fighting the charges.

Cotman is standing trial on a single felony count: influencing a witness. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.

On Thursday, as she has throughout most of the trial, Cotman kept her gaze straight ahead during the two hours of closing arguments. She did not watch Willis speak to the jury. She did not look toward the jury box to gauge jurors’ reactions.

Prosecutors allege that Cotman intimidated and threatened Scott Elementary School interim Principal Jimmye Hawkins by placing her in fear of retaliation if she cooperated in the state investigation into test cheating.

Hawkins testified Cotman opened a Nov. 17, 2010, principals meeting with a lengthy rant against the GBI’s investigation. Cotman then handed out memos labeled “go to hell” to the 10 principals, directing them to address them to the GBI or state investigators, Hawkins testified.

Prosecutors also alleged that Cotman retaliated against Hawkins by demoting her on Feb. 11, 2011, after Cotman became aware the so-called “go to hell” meeting had been disclosed to the school board.

Davis told jurors that Cotman stands indicted for trying to prevent Hawkins from giving information about a crime to investigators looking into cheating. But, he said, Hawkins, who took the witness stand last week, testified she had not witnessed any test cheating or any other criminal behavior.

By the time Cotman told Hawkins in February 2011 that she could no longer serve as interim principal, Hawkins was already cooperating with the GBI and wearing a hidden wire to record conversations, Davis added.

“If you have evidence of a crime, you don’t need to wire somebody up,” he told jurors. “They weren’t wiring her up because they had evidence she committed a crime. They wired her up because they were trying to get evidence of a crime.”

Davis said Cotman removed Hawkins as interim principle because she had received poor marks during a site visit at her school by other educators. “It wasn’t retaliation.”

Willis, at times screaming out her arguments or repeatedly slamming her fist on the jury box, called those arguments “garbage.”

For months, Cotman had held conference calls and meetings with her principals showing her disgust with the ongoing test-tampering probe by the state’s special investigators and the GBI, Willis said. It culminated with the “go to hell” meeting that left Hawkins scared and intimidated, the prosecutor said.

“It was an attempt to get her to shut up,” Willis said.

Willis spent her closing argument accusing high-ranking APS executives of doing everything they could to keep under wraps information about the alarmingly high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures on standardized tests.

“We’re not going to silence the lie anymore,” Willis said. “We’re going to expose the truth. These children deserve more and better.”

Willis said it was essential for the prosecution to put up testimony and evidence about cheating on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. “If you don’t understand there was cheating going on,” the prosecutor told the jurors, “then you don’t get the motive.”

Because of the cheating, she said, struggling school children who scored well on tests were denied the help they needed.

“If you can’t read in the sixth grade, what is your destiny? What can you become? What can you do?” she asked.

“I want the truth to be out,” Willis said. “I want her to be held responsible. We think it’s wrong to silence these people from revealing this ugly, ugly, ugly truth in our history.”