On Tuesday, testimony concluded in the trial of 20 educators in the Atlanta Public School system who are accused of cheating on standardized tests. The defense called its final witness, and the Judge Jerry Baxter gave instructions to the jury and attorneys. Closing arguments will begin on March 16 after a longer-than-usual recess.
Prosecutors also say the teachers on trial prompted students as they struggled to answer test questions. Administrators for the district and at several schools allegedly threatened teachers if their students were failing and punished anyone who reported cheating.
Former Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly Hall is also charged with racketeering, but she did not go on trial because she is being treated for Stage IV breast cancer. She will be tried once she is healthy enough.
If the jury finds the defendants guilty of racketeering, they could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. The defendants also face lesser charges that could bring prison sentences.
None of the 12 defendants testified, and eight of them called no witnesses.
In total, four defense attorneys called 31 witnesses in the past two weeks. In contrast, the prosecution called 133 witnesses, two in rebuttal.
The mood in the courtroom was jovial and giddy, as prosecutors posed for photos and Baxter dropped his usual hard-edged persona and addressed the courtroom in a more folksy manner.
“Y’all are fantastic,” Baxter told the jurors who first came to the Fulton County Courthouse for the trial more than six months ago. “I have never seen anything like this. The most striking thing is your diligence. We’re not over yet. The ultimate decisions will be in your lap and that’s coming soon.
“I want you to try to get back to what you were doing. Relax. You need to get in shape mentally and physically. Work out. Do the Rocky thing,” Baxter said.
Once the jury had left on Tuesday, Baxter, who has been testy throughout the trial, apologized to attorneys for his “gruff” behavior.
“If I have made anybody mad, I’m sorry. Sincerely,” Baxter said. “It’s been a long, long journey.
“I’m not perfect. Right, Evelyn?” he said to the court reporter.
“Right,” she answered.
“I have the highest respect for all of you. You battled for your clients and you’ve been professional,” Baxter said. “This trial turned out to be a lot better than I thought it might be. I had visions of nightmares. They have not come true. … I tried to give everybody a fair trial and I hope I have.”
Closing arguments will put the finishing touches on a truly bizarre trial, with accusations of teachers insulting and even threatening students and holding parties where they would change the answers on standardized tests. The trial took on the air of a soap opera many times, so we’ll see if the conclusion of the trial will bring the same kind of excitement.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock / Matthew Benoit