OPINION: Fulton DA can only dream of erasing school cheating case

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announces the indictments during a press conference about the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal on March 29, 2013. To his immediate right, in the gray suit, is Fani Willis, top prosecutor of the APS case. Howard and Willis are now rivals in a bitter August 2020 runoff election for the position of Fulton DA. (JOHNNY CRAWFORD / AJC file photo)

Credit: Jcrawford@ajc.com

Credit: Jcrawford@ajc.com

The latest campaign stunt proffered by the increasingly desperate Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has me thinking of the TV show “Dallas.”

Specifically Bobby Ewing in the shower.

Back in the 1980s, the actor who played J.R. Ewing’s little brother left the hit series to pursue bigger things. That didn’t go well, so he wanted back on the show. However, his Bobby Ewing character had been killed off, so the writers had to get inventive: They put him lathering up in a shower in the season-ending cliffhanger. Under the new storyline, the entire previous season that was shot without him was merely a dream.

In this episode of “Fulton DA,” star Paul Howard finds himself suffering from declining ratings and about to get canceled. So he is trying to borrow a script from Hollywood: The entire Atlanta Public Schools cheating case didn’t happen. It was just a bad dream.

My colleague Bill Rankin last week broke a story that said Howard concocted a scheme to, in essence, erase the cheating case, a nearly seven-month trial that cost millions of dollars and sent educators to prison. Howard, in what seems like a quid pro quo to secure the endorsement of former election opponent Christian Wise Smith, tried to get a Fulton judge to toss out the sentences of seven former educators.

Wise Smith cast himself as the social consciousness candidate in the race to be Fulton DA and got a surprising 23% of the vote in last month’s Democratic primary. That leaves Howard, who got 35%, facing Fani Willis in an Aug. 11 runoff. Willis, a former prosecutor who worked for Howard, came in first with 42% of the vote.

Until last month, Howard’s 24-year career as DA was one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel. There are allegations of sexual impropriety with subordinates, and the GBI is criminally investigating him for paying himself $195,000 of city of Atlanta money that was funneled through a nonprofit he headed, one set up to combat youth violence.

Under the plan hatched by Howard, the seven convicted educators, “after agreeing to waive their appeals, would have had their sentences essentially voided,” Rankin wrote. “That’s because they were sentenced under the First Offender Act, which discharges a sentence when an offender successfully completes his or her probation.”

Under Howard’s deal, the seven wouldn’t have served probation. But the judge, no doubt, sniffed a political swap in the mix and refused to accept the agreement. That judge, by the way, was Jerry Baxter, the same judge who presided over the mammoth APS trial.

Howard has long defended the prosecution of nearly three dozen teachers, principals and other educators, saying 256,000 answers on children’s tests were changed from wrong to right. This made it appear that students had absorbed their lessons, which allowed the district to pass them without more in-depth teaching.

AJC reporter Rhonda Cook and photographer Kent D. Johnson talk about the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial. Music:"Spring Thaw" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/license

Howard, in an email, said he had not cooked up any deal with Wise Smith and still defends the prosecution. “I wanted to make a point. And that point was that the APS testing process was flawed, that students had been hurt, and that the school system needed to make substantial change. I believe we have made that point.”

He said the defendants are finally accepting responsibility. This is something only a couple of them did when it was time for them to be sentenced back in 2015. Almost all others insisted on their innocence and refused to take deals that offered lesser sentences in exchange for accepting responsibility.

“It is time to move on,” Howard wrote.

However, the document spelling out the proposed deal says nothing about them accepting responsibility or admitting they did anything wrong.

Howard, who had long fashioned himself as a hard-nosed prosecutor, realizes now that old-fashioned “law and order” candidates are no longer popular in bastions like Atlanta and Fulton County.

In his kinder, gentler reawakening, he and Wise Smith last month had a long interview with the rapper-actor T.I., during which the DA said, “I spent a lot of time working on that case. I should have spent more time working with the community to talk about the case.”

But pushback should have been no surprise. Back in 2012, the AJC’s Rankin wrote a story headlined, “DA’s role in APS probe raises chance of criminal penalties. Teachers shouldn’t be targets, say critics of Howard’s involvement.”

So, he knew very well that there was solid opposition to the prosecution. But he persisted, and rightfully so. Although it could be argued that pursuing criminal charges against the teachers, the pawns in that game, was a bit much.

Last month, in what were roundly seen as political moves, Howard quickly charged six Atlanta officers for using Tasers against two unarmed college kids. Later, he charged two other officers in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, who was killed after fighting the cops and trying to flee outside a Wendy’s.

Garrett Rolfe, who soon became an ex-cop, was charged with murder, while Officer Devin Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault. Brosnan put his foot on Brooks’ arm or shoulder for perhaps three seconds after he was shot to prevent the dying man from reaching for the Taser he had stolen from the officer.

Fulton D.A. Paul Howard speaks during a press conference at Fulton County Superior Courthouse on June 17, 2020. The former Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks was charged with felony murder and 10 other offenses in his death, the Fulton County district attorney's office said. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

During the long-ranging interview with T.I., Howard repeatedly said that one of the officers “stood on the chest” of Brooks, getting T.I. to add, “basically pushing the blood out of the wounds.”

Howard nodded and added, “And so the reason I said that maybe this will get me in trouble, is that for me being an African-American man, I would rather sentence you for standing on the body, even above you shooting him because I think standing on a man’s body is the ultimate insult, an insult not only to him, but an insult to our community.”

This week, in a motion to get Howard recused from the case, Rolfe’s lawyers, Noah Pines and Bill Thomas, included a transcript of that 80-minute interview, along with the DA’s nationally broadcast press conference when he charged the two cops, as evidence of Howard “trying to inflame the public” and making a “false statement of material fact.”

Regarding the latter, Howard contends that after the shooting, Rolfe said, “I got him!” However, according to the tape, it’s unclear who’s speaking. And it sounds like someone actually said, “I got it!” — possibly a bystander saying he had recorded the shooting.

Whatever the case, next month, Fulton’s voters got this.

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