Prosecutors lose first Atlanta cheating trial

How Cotman was found not guilty

Tamara Cotman, a former area director for Atlanta Public Schools, beat the single charge brought against her in this case that she influenced a witness during the investigation of widespread cheating. Among the key factors of the trial:

What the prosecution tried to prove

Cotman tried to cover up evidence of cheating in the Atlanta school system by intimidating principals and encouraging them to tell state investigators to “go to hell.”

What the defense argued

Although Cotman handed out memos labeled “go to hell” during a principals meeting Nov. 17, 2010, they weren’t aimed at state cheating investigators. Instead, Cotman used the notes as a stress-relief exercise that principals could write to anyone they wanted.

The biggest reason the prosecution lost

Jurors said witnesses gave conflicting accounts about whether Cotman mentioned the GBI or state investigators when she handed out the “go to hell” memos. The jurors also said the prosecution didn’t show that Cotman’s actions were intended to influence one of the principals in the meeting, former Scott Elementary Principal Jimmye Hawkins.

The defense’s strongest argument

Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, told jurors to set aside emotional arguments about how children were cheated of their educations. Instead, Davis asked the jurors to closely examine the evidence and measure whether it fit the alleged crime.

The defense’s gambit

Davis sought a speedy trial because he was confident prosecutors couldn’t prove their case once a jury heard from witnesses who contradicted Hawkins. He didn’t deliver an opening statement, and he relied on witness testimony and the evidence presented. The strategy paid off when the jury acquitted Cotman despite indications of cheating at 15 of the 21 schools she oversaw.

Prosecutors failed to win a conviction Friday in the first criminal case related to widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools, with jurors clearing a former school system executive who was accused of interfering with an investigation of falsified test scores.

Tamara Cotman, who oversaw 21 north Atlanta schools, was found not guilty after a three-week trial on a charge that she influenced a witness who claimed Cotman instructed principals to tell investigators to “go to hell.”

The case may be a setback for prosecutors who used Cotman’s trial as a test-run of their arguments that she and other educators either cheated or knew about it and tried to cover it up.

Along with former Superintendent Beverly Hall, Cotman is one of 35 former administrators and teachers who, according to an indictment, fudged scores on high-stakes tests mandated by the federal government. Prosecutors argued during Cotman’s trial that instead of showing real academic progress, educators faked results both to save their jobs and collect incentive pay for meeting targets.

But Cotman said the evidence and the jury vindicated her.

“I’ve always said that I serve a God of truth and that the truth will set you free. And today I feel free,” Cotman said after walking out of the Fulton County courthouse. “I was just grateful that the jurors listened to all the evidence and were able to filter the truth from things that weren’t true.”

District Attorney Paul Howard said he’s disappointed with the verdict, but he will continue to fight “a very long battle” in future trials of accused educators.

“Standing up for what is right, standing up for your community, I don’t see how you can ever say it was an embarrassment,” Howard said. “We’re simply getting ready for the next case.”

Jurors who spoke after delivering the verdict said the evidence of cheating was persuasive, but Cotman wasn’t on trial for cheating. Cotman still faces racketeering charges with the other co-defendants in a trial scheduled for next spring.

Jury foreman Greg Pollock said he focused on the single count that Cotman influenced a witness.

“A lot of the evidence that we were presented with, there were opposing views,” said Pollock, who works in payroll management. “We could not find one clear piece of evidence that said emphatically that this happened.”

Another juror, Ben Emerson, said Cotman’s trial wasn’t about broad accusations of cheating that are still pending.

“There is a very tragic injustice to a lot of people that’s on the table here, and anyone who can be found guilty of participating in that or causing that injustice should be held accountable,” said Emerson, a research engineer.

But Cotman’s successful defense may have weakened the case against those facing charges for their alleged involvement in cheating.

Her acquittal may embolden other defendants to continue fighting the charges rather than seek plea deals.

“The state touted this case as a preview of the trial yet to come against the other defendants,” said Richard Deane, an attorney for Hall. “We remain hopeful that a later jury in that case will also listen carefully to the evidence and reach the same result.”

Cotman’s case came first because her attorney, Benjamin Davis, requested a speedy trial.

Davis said Cotman wasn’t on trial for cheating, even though prosecutors made it seem that way. He said Cotman never witnessed cheating or any other criminal behavior, and she didn’t attempt to stonewall investigators looking into irregularities on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

She was accused of intimidating and threatening Scott Elementary School interim Principal Jimmye Hawkins, who said she feared retaliation for cooperating with the state investigation into test cheating. If found guilty, Cotman would have faced up to five years in prison.

Hawkins testified that 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.

But other principals in the meeting told jurors during the trial that the memos were intended as a stress relief exercise, and Cotman didn’t mention the GBI.

After a lawyer for Atlanta Public Schools questioned Hawkins about the “go to hell” meeting, she said she feared retaliation from the school system. Cotman demoted her on Feb. 11, 2011.

The case caused many witnesses to tear up, from teachers who admitted cheating to former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who ordered the state investigation of cheating.

The investigation concluded in July 2011 that 185 educators had participated in cheating or should have known about it.

Davis urged jurors to set aside the emotion of the case and instead make a decision based only on the charge of influencing a witness.

He asked jurors to decide only on the specific accusation against Cotman, and he told the jury that the “go to hell” meeting didn’t influence Hawkins or harm the cheating investigation.

His calm closing arguments countered those of lead prosecutor Fani Willis, who raised her voice in a loud plea for justice for the “babies” who had been cheated of their education. Sounding like a preacher, she slammed her fist on the jury box to emphasize her points.

“The verdict proves the point that you need more than emotion to convict someone of a crime — you need evidence,” said Bruce Harvey, who represents defendant Clarietta Davis, the former principal of Venetian Elementary School. “And this case was built on a mountain of emotion and a molehill of evidence.”