Verdict Comes in First Trial Connected to Probe of Schools
By Cameron McWhirter
A jury found a former Atlanta school administrator not guilty Friday in the first trial relating to one of the largest school-cheating scandals in U.S. history.
The outcome suggests that it might be difficult for prosecutors to win their cases against 34 former educators in Atlanta's public schools. A state judge has scheduled one large trial for the defendants next spring.
Tamara Cotman, a former area director overseeing 21 schools, was found not guilty of influencing a witness. The jury deliberated Thursday afternoon and part of Friday morning after a trial that began with testimony on Aug. 23.
The verdict came after prosecutors presented evidence and brought in testimony from numerous witnesses, including former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who had ordered a probe of the school system after allegations of widespread cheating on state standardized tests.
The charge against Ms. Cotman stemmed from allegations that she had intimidated staff as part of an attempt to force them not to cooperate with state investigators. She had sought a speedy trial, so her case came first.
Ms. Cotman said outside the courthouse on Friday that she felt vindicated. Her attorney couldn't be reached for comment on the verdict.
Although Ms. Cotman was acquitted of the influencing charge, she still faces a racketeering charge, along with other defendants.
Bruce Harvey, an attorney for a former elementary-school principal indicted in the conspiracy case, said the verdict "shows that you can't convict people on emotion; you need evidence. And clearly, the state's case was all emotion."
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said at a press conference after the verdict, "We are just going to get ready for the larger case," referring to the trial set for next year.
A 2011 state report found that cheating on state standardized tests was rife in Atlanta schools, including allegations that teachers erased incorrect answers because they would get bonuses if their students got higher scores. The report said the educators were responding to pressure from the administration of Beverly Hall, Atlanta's superintendent from 1999 to 2011, to show marked improvement in their students' scores or face discipline or less pay.
Ms. Hall, who resigned in the wake of the scandal, was indicted along with 34 other educators earlier this year on racketeering and other charges. Lawyers for Ms. Hall have said she didn't participate in wrongdoing, and she pleaded not guilty. Recently, one of the defendants died of cancer, and lawyers for Ms. Hall have said she is suffering from breast cancer.
Richard Quartarone, president of an education-policy group called Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools and a parent with two children in the city's public schools, said Friday, "I hope the prosecution is able to shore up their cases as everything moves forward. If there are no guilty verdicts, that is just horrible." ---------------------------------------- SIDEBAR PHOTO: Former Atlanta school official Tamara Cotman speaks Friday after a jury found her not guilty of charges related to an alleged cheating scandal. Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Associated Press ---------------------------------------- Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org ------------------------------------- A version of this article appeared September 7, 2013, on page A2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Former Atlanta Educator Acquitted. ******************************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University 625 Wham Drive Mail Code 4610 Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: email@example.com