Anger should be over educational quality, not defendants

Lawrence M. Schall is president of Oglethorpe University, and a former trial attorney,

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this op-ed appears on

I wasn’t able to watch every minute of the two-day APS sentencing last week, but I watched enough to be justifiably appalled at the behavior of our judicial system.

By the time I tuned in on day one, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter was profusely apologizing for an outburst. It appeared he was driven to rage at the deals the prosecutor had offered those defendants who had dared avail themselves of the right to trial.

When it became obvious there were actually no deals to be announced, the judge made it clear fury and vengeance were on their way. In fact, he acknowledged his forthcoming sentences were about exacting vengeance.

In one more fit of anger, he told everyone to be back in an hour so he could hand down the sentences right then and there. Even the prosecutors seemed to realize this timetable made little sense, and the judge quickly backtracked, giving the parties the night to see if any deals could be had.

Before everyone left his courthouse, however, he made sure one last time that each defendant knew not taking a deal would be a huge mistake.

I don’t have an opinion on whether the deals offered were fair or not. If one thought the trial was fair and the convictions appropriate, then I don’t think the deals were unreasonable on their face. Then, again, I am not the one having to plead guilty to a felony and face jail time.

Regardless of what I think,it’s clear every attorney save one (eventually two) didn’t believe the offers to be in their client’s best interests. The key point here is that accepting any offer involved giving up all rights to appeal and clearly defense counsel believed they have strong grounds for a successful appeal. I suspect they are right.

A night’s sleep didn’t seem to lessen any of Judge Baxter’s anger and frustration. One by one, the defendants got up to be sentenced. The three senior administrators had their heads handed to them. Judge Baxter didn’t find the prosecutor’s recommendation of three years jail time to be vengeful enough and he sentenced them all to seven years.

You could just feel his disappointment in not being able to nail the alleged ringleader of the conspiracy, Beverly Hall. She managed to escape his wrath, but he wasn’t going to allow her death to take away his opportunity to express his anger, outrage, and vengeance.

Then came the others. For the most part here, Judge Baxter accepted the prosecutor’s recommendations, but he refused to grant first offender status despite the fact every defendant was a first-time offender.

This status allows a convict, after completing her sentence, to apply to have the conviction wiped off her record and start life over again with at least some kind of a clean slate. I wasn’t entirely sure of his rationale except that Judge Baxter was in no mood for leniency.

But then, as if struck by a lightning bolt, he amended the sentences he had just imposed (except for the three senior administrators, of course) and granted first offender status.

For goodness sake, this trial has been going on for months. These defendants were convicted weeks ago. It surely seemed to me the judge was making this all up as he went along.

While I suppose it made for good TV, I kept thinking these are the fate of people’s lives he is deciding, and I wish he would have at least appeared to be more reasoned and more thoughtful as he did so.

This entire course of events has been a tragedy. There are people, some who faced trial, some who pleaded guilty, and others who were not charged, who behaved badly. I have no doubt about that. I don’t happen to think those who faced trial were more to blame than many who avoided being tried.

And today, several years after these events occurred, our schools are still failing and we are still failing our children. I personally don’t believe what happened today in court matters one iota in the grand scheme of things.

As a community, we have allowed our public schools to fail to adequately educate our less advantaged children for decade upon decade. I wish Judge Baxter and others would be as outraged about that scandal as they have been about this one.