ATLANTA (AP) — A not guilty plea was entered Friday on behalf of Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools who is charged in a broad conspiracy alleging educators cheated on standardized tests to mask poor student performance for personal gain.
Hall was among several former Atlanta educators who appeared in Fulton County Superior Court. Hall sat quietly in the gallery, standing up as her attorney J. Tom Morgan said she would waive a formal reading of the charges. The court then entered a not guilty plea on her behalf, and she left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.
Hall's attorneys have promised to mount a strong defense, saying Hall was not aware of or involved in any cheating. Outside of court, Hall's attorney said he expects a number of the 35 defendants in the case will ask to be tried separately, although Hall would not be among them.
"So potentially you're going to have 35 defendants with over 50 attorneys. That will be the longest trial in Georgia history. The longest criminal trial for sure," Morgan said.
Attorneys may argue that being tried so that a jury can consider the charges against them without being influenced by allegations against co-defendants.
On Friday, Judge Jerry Baxter indicated he was inclined to have one trial and set the date for May 5, 2014.
Baxter also dismissed a request for an order barring attorneys from speaking to the media, but reminded them to follow ethical guidelines.
Several other educators appeared in court, and not guilty pleas were entered on their behalf. A small group of supporters gathered outside the courthouse with signs saying, "We support Dr. Beverly Hall and APS employees."
"It's not that I don't believe some irregularities occurred," said Mercehari Williams, a former Atlanta Public Schools educator who was outside the courthouse. "It's not that I don't believe that justice should be served and an investigation should occur and those guilty parties should be prosecuted, but I just believe that it's heavy-handed and I don't believe that we can get a fair trial when it has been tried in the media."
In March, Hall and the other 34 educators were named in a 65-count indictment that alleges a conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers in an effort to bolster student test scores and, as a result, receive bonuses and accolades for improved student performance.
Each could face five to 20 years in prison if convicted of all the charges.
Associated Press video journalist Johnny Clark contributed to this report. Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina.