Closing Arguments Underway In Atlanta Test Cheating Trial

Mar 17, 2015
Originally published on March 17, 2015 7:18 pm
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Closing arguments are underway in the trial of 12 former Atlanta educators. They stand accused of changing students' test scores - a scandal that has cast a shadow over the city and its public school system since it first came to light in 2009. For more now we turn to Martha Dalton, who's been following the trial. She is a reporter at WABE in Atlanta. We should also disclose here that WABE's broadcast license is held by the Atlanta Board of Education. Martha, welcome to the program.

MARTHA DALTON, BYLINE: Thank you.

GONYEA: So tell us what happened in court today.

DALTON: Well, today, defense attorneys had their say, and since there are a dozen defendants each has at least one attorney. Now, some have two, so they've had to split their time a little bit. Each of the defendants has an hour for closing arguments. Most attorneys have focused on their individual clients today and why he or she, they say, is not guilty. But several have also focused on the presumption of innocence, you know, insisting that the jury's job is to assume their clients are innocent unless the state can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that's not the case, that they're guilty. And they say the state hasn't done that.

GONYEA: Recognizing that this can always be a stop and start process, when are closing arguments expected to wrap up?

DALTON: Well, the judge says closing arguments will wrap up tomorrow. The prosecution had five hours for their closing arguments. They started things off yesterday, but conceded some of their time, so they'll finish up tomorrow after the defense attorneys are through. But then, of course, the judge is going to have to instruct the jury - that will take a while - but after that it'll be in the hands of the jury.

GONYEA: This is really an unusual case. All 12 of the defendants are former educators. They face racketeering charges, among other charges. You've spoken to legal experts. How do they explain how teachers could be violating racketeering laws?

DALTON: Well, they say this is a pretty rare case. There is a federal racketeering law that was actually designed to catch mobsters, but these defendants are being tried under Georgia's racketeering statutes, which is a little bit broader. And so experts say it's not that - as hard to prove a racketeering charge. So some say it's possible that the state could get a conviction, and you'd have former educators serving jail time, which would be pretty unprecedented.

GONYEA: As you said, we've got all these defendants. We've got even more attorneys. Can you just briefly give us some sense of the nature of the defense?

DALTON: Right. The defense - again, obviously it will depend client to client, but there are some common threads - all of them, you know, defending their client's innocence, saying that they're not guilty. Basically that the state got it wrong, that this was not a conspiracy to cheat and that their clients are innocent.

GONYEA: And not racketeering, therefore.

DALTON: Right, and therefore not racketeering.

GONYEA: Martha, this case has really cast a pall, specifically over the business community in the Atlanta area. Why is that?

DALTON: Right, well, this was a real blow for businesses because, you know, they supported the district and former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. And, of course, one thing businesses really consider when they're looking to relocate is the school system. You know, they want their employees to be able to send their children to good schools, and they want to be able to hire good graduates.

GONYEA: And what reflects poorly on the schools reflects poorly on the community reflects poorly on businesses.

DALTON: Exactly.

GONYEA: Martha Dalton, thanks very much.

DALTON: Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: Martha Dalton is a reporter with member station WABE in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.