Plea deal sought for Hall in APS case

Prosecutors and lawyers for Beverly Hall tried last month to work out a plea deal in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case in which she would agree to plead to a single felony charge in exchange for probation, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

But talks broke down because the agreement would have allowed Hall to plead guilty in a way that would not require her to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, those familiar with the matter said. They said the prosecution initiated the plea negotiations.

Hall’s lawyers wanted the former superintendent to be allowed to enter a so-called “Alford plea.” When this happens, a defendant still denies having committed the crime but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convince a jury to reach a guilty verdict.

The U.S. Supreme Court allowed such pleas in its 1970 decision, North Carolina v. Alford. A defendant who enters this type of plea will have a conviction on his or her record.

This week, the former superintendent sought a delay in her trial because she is battling Stage IV breast cancer.  

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and Hall’s lead attorney, Richard Deane, both declined to comment Wednesday on the plea negotiations.

In the vast majority of criminal cases, a judge will accept a guilty plea upon finding there is a factual basis to support the conviction. This typically happens after a prosecutor lays out the circumstances of the offense and when a defendant admits to the crime he or she was charged with.

But in rare cases, defendants are allowed to enter Alford pleas and not admit to wrongdoing.

“This allows a defendant who still denies that he or she committed the crime to get the benefit of a plea bargain in order to avoid the risk of a long prison sentence should they go to trial and be convicted,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Jack Martin, who is not involved in the APS case. “They’re thinking, ‘I’d rather just cut my losses right now.’”

Hall may have “encouraged people to increase test scores, but she, in her own mind, didn’t intend for them to cheat,” Martin said. “In this situation, where she is obviously desperately ill, this is a way to put this behind her to focus on something more important.”

So far, 23 defendants in the test-cheating scandal have entered guilty pleas to either felonies or misdemeanors. But none of these defendants was allowed to enter an Alford plea. Instead, they were required to write letters of apology for their actions, and most defendants, some fighting back tears, read the letters aloud to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, who is presiding over the case, during plea hearings.

Hall, 67, is charged with engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to improperly inflate students’ scores on standardized tests. She also stands indicted of theft by taking, giving a false statement and submitting a false document in 2009 when she turned in her superintendent’s test certification to the state Board of Education.

Hall and a dozen co-defendants are scheduled to go to trial late next month. But this week, Hall’s lawyers filed court motions saying that Hall will be putting her life at risk unless her racketeering trial is delayed.

The motion seeks a delay of six to eight months or until Hall responds to more aggressive treatment to fight her cancer. Baxter has scheduled a hearing for Monday to consider that request.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Deane said Hall is under a great deal of stress.

“She wants to go forward and try to vindicate herself if her body allows and her strength allows,” he said. “But this is just something that her doctors have made clear that she is just in no position at this time to move forward.”

Hall’s oncologist, in a sworn statement filed with the court Monday, said Hall’s cancer has continued to spread. It must be treated aggressively with chemotherapy that will weaken her immune system and expose her to increased risk of disease and infection, the statement said.