Judge Reduces 3 Educators' Sentences In Atlanta Cheating Scandal

Judge Reduces 3 Educators' Sentences In Atlanta Cheating Scandal

11:08am May 01, 2015

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A judge in Atlanta has reduced the prison terms of three former educators. The three were called ringleaders in a larger group of teachers, all found guilty of conspiring to cheat on state tests by changing students' answers. The idea was higher test scores would result in bigger bonuses and better pay for the teachers. The judge warned these three to take plea deals. And when they didn't, he threw the book at them. From member station WABE, Martha Dalton has the latest twist in the testing scandal.

MARTHA DALTON, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, Judge Jerry Baxter firmly told the three defendants they would serve the maximum sentence for racketeering.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUDGE JERRY BAXTER: Twenty years to serve seven, 2,000 hours of community service and $25,000 fine.

DALTON: The punishment was much higher than what prosecutors recommended. But Judge Baxter stood firm. Yesterday, he said he regretted that decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAXTER: When the judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong. Anyway, I want to modify the sentence.

DALTON: Judge Baxter reduced the sentence to 10 years in prison to serve three. The defendants will spend the rest on probation. Page Pate is a criminal attorney in Atlanta. He says in his experience, what the judge did was highly unusual.

PAGE PATE: I cannot think of a single time in my 20 years of doing this that that's occurred without some either reversal of the case from the court of appeals or some new set of facts coming forward.

DALTON: Many observers say the judge, who's white, didn't seem susceptible to public pressure, even when racial tensions emerged.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATOR: Let my people go.

DALTON: All of the defendants are African-American; so are the students they taught, as are attorneys on both sides. Six jurors were also African-American.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Singing) Hallelujah.

DALTON: At the time, the protests and public prayers asking for mercy for the former educators didn't sway Judge Baxter. Neither did former Atlanta mayor, U.S. ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young. During a sentencing hearing, he told the judge the teachers were pressured to raise test scores.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW YOUNG: I think these teachers got caught in a trap. Dr. King used to say when people are placed in darkness, crimes will be committed; but the guilty are not just those who commit the crimes but those who create the darkness.

DALTON: Judge Baxter seemed unfazed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAXTER: All I want from any of these people is just to take some accountability. But they refuse. They refuse.

DALTON: Attorney Benjamin Davis, who represents one of the three defendants, says it's possible the judge sentenced them for the wrong offense. He thinks the judge sentenced them for racketeering instead of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Despite the shorter jail terms, the defendants all plan to appeal. That process could take two to three years. For NPR News, I'm Martha Dalton in Atlanta.

MONTAGNE: And we should say that while its newsroom is independent, WABE's broadcast license is held by the Atlanta Board of Education. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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