ATLANTA (AP) — An Atlanta judge urged 10 former educators Monday to accept sentencing deals with the prosecution in a trial over a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests — and he threatened prison sentences for them if they fail to reach those deals.
"I've got a fair sentence in my mind and it involves going to jail for everybody," Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter warned. He also said, "I don't think you want to go my way. Either it's my way or a negotiated plea."
Sentencing is expected when court resumes Tuesday.
Baxter heard from character witnesses for 10 of the 11 defendants convicted this month of racketeering for their roles in a scheme to inflate students' scores on standardized exams.
The witnesses — mostly friends and relatives of the defendants — pleaded for mercy and described the former educators' passion for teaching and dedication to their students, which often extended to devoting their personal time and money to help.
The 11th convicted former educator was pregnant when the jury reached its verdict and she gave birth over the weekend. She's set to be sentenced later.
Baxter listened carefully, often asking questions, and said repeatedly that while he didn't doubt the former educators' commitment and teaching ability, he believed they had made bad decisions. Whenever a witness or defense attorney questioned the jury's verdict, Baxter quickly made it clear that he had heard the evidence and agreed with the verdict.
Thirty-five Atlanta educators in all were indicted in 2013 on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. Many pleaded guilty before the trial, and some testified at the months-long trial. The jury acquitted one of the 12 former educators who went to trial and convicted the other 11 on a racketeering charge.
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was among those indicted, but she did not stand trial with the others because her lawyers argued successfully that she was too sick. She died last month from complications of breast cancer.
Baxter said the real victims are any children who were promoted based on false test scores. He said that could lead them to drop out of school because they can't do the work, having been cheated out of the earlier education. Such children often end up in trouble with the law, he said.
"They are the most vulnerable children in our city, and they were short-changed," Baxter said. "They were passed on and now they're in the prison system."
Baxter said he thought Monday morning that he had arrived at a fair sentence. Then District Attorney Paul Howard told him he'd been talking to defense attorneys over the weekend and that he believed the case could be resolved with negotiated pleas, eliminating the possibility of appeals that could stretch on for years.
"I just see all the pain in this room," Baxter said. "It's a tragedy for all of you — the defendants, your families, your friends."
The only reason he would send them to jail, he said, would be for retribution.
"I just think the best thing for our community in this whole sordid mess is for Paul Howard to talk to each of you and enter pleas," Baxter said. After a lunch break, he said court would recess until Tuesday morning to give defense attorneys time to talk to the district attorney about possible deals.
Howard said he wants to see the defendants accept responsibility.
Former elementary school principal Dana Evans was one of only two former educators who spoke directly to the judge on Monday. She apologized and appealed to his sense of compassion. Baxter made it clear he sympathized with her, saying, "you were under so much pressure, so my heart goes out to you."
"I know you want to hear an admission of guilt, but I can't do that because it's not the truth," Evans told the judge, but added that she could say she's sorry.
Former testing coordinator Donald Bullock also addressed the judge. He got choked up when he asked Baxter not to make him an absentee parent to his children or to separate him from his wife.
One defense attorney called former Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador Andrew Young to testify. Young said he had no connection to any of the defendants, but that his family includes many teachers.
"We have messed up education so much. Tests and grades do not make you educated," he said, later adding, "I think these teachers got caught in a trap."
Young asked Baxter for leniency, saying educators are "the backbone of this society" and arguing that the former educators have much to offer the community if they're spared prison.