Plea deadlines loom in massive APS case

Four ex-Atlanta educators will be in court Friday to ask a judge to suppress statements made by their alleged co-conspirators. The hearing is expected to involve former Dunbar Elementary Principal Lera Middlebrooks, former Deerwood Academy Assistant Principal Tabeeka Jordan, former Dunbar Elementary teacher Pamela Cleveland and former Dobbs Elementary teacher Dessa Curb.

The remaining 33 defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case face the legal equivalence of a game of chicken with life-altering consequences.

Do they spend half of 2014 in a grueling trial? Or do they seek a deal from prosecutors now and try to get on with their lives?

Deadlines are looming. Decisions must soon be made.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some who wind up pleading guilty,” Atlanta lawyer Sanford Wallack said. “I don’t know if it will be one or two or ten or 20. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Wallack, who represents former Dobbs Elementary School teacher Dessa Curb, declined to say what his client might do.

To date, only one of those charged in the sweeping racketeering indictment has entered a guilty plea.

Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has set a Jan. 6 deadline for defendants to broker negotiated plea agreements. If such deals can be reached by then, Baxter will accept the terms recommended by prosecutors and the defendants. Guilty pleas entered after that date hold no such guarantee.

The prosecution has also set its own deadline. APS defendants have until Dec. 20 to find out what deals are being offered, prosecutors told lawyers representing the 33 defendants in a recent email.

In a statement, District Attorney Paul Howard said he will consider any reasonable offer if a defendant is willing to tell the truth and accept responsibility.

“This case is not about blood or revenge, but rather about redemption for the children of this community who lost an important educational opportunity,” Howard said.

Attorney Keith Adams, who represents former Dunbar Elementary teacher Diane Buckner-Webb, said he believes Fulton prosecutors recognize they will have problems trying to obtain convictions against a number of defendants.

“I simply believe they don’t have the evidence they need against a lot of those charged,” Adams said. “I think (prosecutors) are praying that a number of people enter pleas to make the case easier for them. … But I’d be shocked if more than ten people enter pleas.”

The former educators and administrators are charged with conspiring to cheat on standardized tests so they could receive bonus pay and so their schools could meet academic benchmarks. Various defendants are charged with other felonies, such as theft by taking, making false statements and influencing witnesses. The trial is set for spring.

The defendants this week had to confront news footage of former DeKalb School Superintendent Crawford Lewis being handcuffed and taken into custody Monday to serve a yearlong jail term. A judge rejected the plea deal reached by Lewis and DeKalb prosecutors that called for a sentence of probation in a racketeering corruption case. Lewis’ two co-defendants who were convicted at trial received stiff prison terms.

Atlanta defense attorney Buddy Parker said he expects Fulton prosecutors will try to reach agreements with many of the defendants at the low end of the school system’s hierarchy. This would include about 20 teachers and testing coordinators charged in the scandal.

“Prosecutors want to get deals that call for their cooperation and their testimony,” said Parker, who is not involved in the case. “But they should also get pleas whether that’s a condition or not, just to help narrow the focus of the case. I don’t know how you can manage a trial with more than 20 defendants and be fair to all parties.”

Paul Kish, another lawyer not involved in the APS case, agreed.

“Who in the world wants to sit through a six-month trial?” he asked. “There are dangers on both sides. Some jurors may get upset at having to endure it and take it out on the prosecution. There’s no way a jury can keep its focus on each defendant in a trial like that, but jurors could wind up believing all of those charged must be guilty.”

Last month, former Humphries Elementary School teacher Lisa Terry became the first defendant to break ranks. Terry agreed to cooperate and testify for prosecutors, who in turn dismissed all felony charges against her.

Terry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction. She received one year on probation and will perform 250 hours of community service by tutoring at-risk youths.

In her plea agreement, Terry said she bowed to pressure from administrators and allowed her students to go back and correct their answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Once Terry decided to come forward, it took about two weeks of intense negotiations to work out her deal, her lawyer, William Boddie, said.

“She didn’t want her former students to have to come to court and testify,” Boddie said. “That’s one of the main reasons she did what she did. When it came right down to it, she wanted to tell her story. She wanted to do the right thing.”

Boddie predicted other APS defendants will follow Terry’s lead.

Angela Y. Johnson, a lawyer who represents former Dunbar Elementary teacher Shani Robinson, noted this is a non-violent case involving educators with no prior records. An appropriate resolution for some educators, she suggested, would be pre-trial diversion. This allows defendants to dispose of their cases by performing community service or abiding by other conditions without having to enter a guilty plea.

“It seems to me the DA’s Office needs to get real,” she said.

If her client decides to fight the charges during a lengthy trial, Johnson added, “I’m not afraid of that at all.”