It’s showtime for APS trial, a ‘monster case’

The test-cheating scandal that rocked Atlanta Public Schools completes its long journey from classroom to courtroom Monday when attorneys make opening statements in the trial of 12 former educators.

The trial, projected to last months, is expected to determine whether the 12 were part of a criminal conspiracy that harmed thousands of schoolchildren. In short, were these teachers, principals and administrators also racketeers?

Last Monday, after an arduous selection process, six men and six women were seated as jurors. Eleven alternates, an extraordinarily large number, were also picked to replace any jurors who cannot make it through the entire trial.

The stakes are extremely high. Each defendant faces at least one count of racketeering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Remarkably, all of the remaining defendants have stood firm and rejected deals offered by the prosecution that would have allowed them to plead guilty to greatly reduced charges. And they have done so while 21 of their co-defendants accepted such deals and agreed to be witnesses for the prosecution.

All 21 who pleaded guilty received sentences of probation and community service. Most were sentenced as first offenders, meaning if they successfully complete the terms of their probation they will not have a conviction on their record. They also will likely be able to keep their full pensions.

As for the remaining 12 defendants, it’s now their chance to fight the charges.

“This is a monster case,” said Atlanta attorney Noah Pines, who does not represent any APS defendants. “A lot of these people could have taken a sentence of probation just to avoid this. They’ve already taken six weeks just for jury selection? The trial will last months? You’d think there must be a good reason they’re fighting the case. Obviously, these defendants are extremely committed because so much is at risk.”

In recent weeks, Fulton County prosecutors reached out again to two of the remaining defendants — former testing coordinators Donald Bullock from Usher Collier Heights Elementary and Theresia Copeland from Benteen Elementary. Bullock and Copeland were offered deals similar to those accepted by the 21 co-defendants who pleaded guilty, lawyers familiar with the negotiations said. But both Bullock and Copeland rejected the deals.

“I’m getting ready for battle,” said Bullock’s lawyer, Hurl Davis, declining to comment on any plea discussions. “I almost feel like little David getting ready to go after the big Goliath.”

Copeland’s lawyer, Scott Smith, declined to comment.

In court filings, prosecutors accuse the 12 defendants of engaging in a conspiracy from 2005 to 2010 in which teachers tipped off students to the right answers on standardized tests or corrected students’ wrong answers after the tests were turned in. The scandal, one of the most notorious to strike a U.S. school district, was uncovered by the governor’s special investigators and detailed in a massive, 813-page report released in July 2011.

The cheating was brought about by a high-stakes testing system that held administrators, principals and teachers accountable if their schools did not meet certain academic performance goals, prosecutors allege. Educators who did not meet their targets were routinely transferred, demoted or terminated.

The deceit perpetuated, prosecutors say, because teachers who reported cheating faced retaliation, instilling a culture of fear and intimidation throughout the school system.

The pressure came from the very top. Former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who is also charged in the indictment, made it clear she would accept no excuses from those whose schools failed to make their targets, prosecutors allege.

Hall, who has pleaded not guilty, has been receiving treatment for Stage IV breast cancer. She is too gravely ill to stand trial at this time.

The Fulton district attorney’s office is devoting enormous resources to the case. More than eight prosecutors have been in court during various proceedings. The office is also relying on Atlanta attorney John Floyd, the state’s foremost expert on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

Floyd, a member of the Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore firm, is serving as a special prosecutor free of charge. He has similarly helped other district attorney’s offices with RICO prosecutions. In 2002, for example, he served as a special prosecutor in the case against former DeKalb Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, who was convicted of the 2000 murder of Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown and of racketeering charges.

Georgia’s RICO law is modeled on the federal law that was originally passed for the purpose of prosecuting criminal organizations like the Mafia. But in recent years it has been used by Georgia prosecutors in a widening variety of cases, such as those involving gang leaders, former Cobb EMC chief Dwight Brown and the assisted-suicide group the Final Exit Network.

In the trial beginning Monday, Fulton prosecutors must convince jurors that the 12 former educators were part of a criminal enterprise — the Atlanta Public Schools system — and shared common goals to inflate test scores and then cover it up. Prosecutors are expected to say the defendants joined the alleged conspiracy so they could receive bonus money and keep their jobs.

Racketeering cases are fraught with danger for both the prosecution and the defense, Atlanta criminal defense attorney Jerry Froelich said.

“Because of its stiff penalties, RICO is used as a sledgehammer, just like in this case, to get people to plead guilty,” Froelich said. “It also can let prosecutors try these 12 people together, even though they all didn’t know each other and worked at different schools. It allows them to allege one big, basic conspiracy that all these people were a part of.”

On the flip side, racketeering prosecutions often make trials more complicated and longer than they need to be, Froelich, who is not involved in the APS case, said.

“It can both confuse and anger juries,” he said. “And I’m wondering if in this case jurors will really want to call schoolteachers racketeers.”

Bob Rubin, who represents former Dobbs Elementary principal Dana Evans, echoed feelings expressed by many of his fellow defense attorneys in the case. His client, he said, is no racketeer.

“We are anxious for this trial to begin,” Rubin said. “This was not about shortcuts or fear. A lot of things were wrong with APS, but a lot of educators were doing things the right way too, and we intend to show that Dana Evans was doing things the right way.”