Judge cuts sentences for 3 ex-Atlanta educators who got stiffest punishment in cheating trial

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ATLANTA — A judge sharply reduced the sentences Thursday for three former Atlanta public school educators who received the harshest prison terms in the trial stemming from the city's standardized test cheating scandal.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter reduced sentences for Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts. Each was given three years in prison and seven on probation.

Previously, each was sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 on probation.

"When a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong," Baxter said. "I want to modify the sentence so I can live with it."

The three former district regional directors were the highest-ranking of the 11 former educators convicted of racketeering. Their original sentences were more than double what prosecutors had recommended.

Each of the three also was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, compared with the original sentence of a $25,000 fine. They also must perform 2,000 hours community service — unchanged from the original sentence.

A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators from the 50,000-student Atlanta school system fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.

In 2013, 35 educators were indicted on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. Many pleaded guilty, and some testified at the months-long trial. The jury on April 1 acquitted one of the 12 former educators who went to trial and convicted the other 11 of racketeering.

Ten were sentenced April 14. The 11th recently gave birth and is to be sentenced later this year.

The original penalties were handed down after Baxter delayed sentencing for a day to give the convicted former educators a chance to try to negotiate deals with prosecutors. He warned that if they took their chances with him, he'd give them prison time.

Only two took deals and were rewarded with relatively light sentences. A former testing coordinator was ordered to spend weekends in jail for six months and a former teacher must be at home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for a year. They each also got five years of probation.

The others, including the three who were resentenced Thursday, refused to take the deals. They balked at conditions set by prosecutors, including publicly admitting their guilt and giving up their right to appeal.

Aside from the three former district regional directors, the defendants who didn't take the deals received prison terms of one or two years, with the remainder of their five-year sentences to be served on probation. Most sentences also include community service and a fine.

Georgia State University law professor Russell Covey said it's unusual but not unheard of for a judge to reconsider and change a sentence.

"It's not the norm, but nothing about this case is the norm," Covey said.

"They're not typical criminal defendants, but they were charged under quite serious criminal laws, so the sentences the laws suggest are pretty harsh and equate what these defendants did with some quite serious wrongdoing," he added. "So I think the judge was kind of struggling with how to treat these defendants given how unusual they are."

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he was satisfied with the new sentences, saying they were in line with his office's recommendations because the former educators refused to admit guilt.

"We would always hope that people would accept responsibility and, in that way, they would have been serving weekends in jail and this would be essentially over," Howard said.

Davis-Williams told reporters after resentencing that she had been devastated by her original sentence and was grateful for the judge's change of heart.

"I'm pleased that Judge Baxter did reflect. That was refreshing," she said, adding that she maintains her innocence and plans to appeal.

Cotman said she still feels numb from the whole process, but she also said she plans to challenge her conviction.

"I have to appeal," she said. "I'm in a position where I'm fighting for a wrong to be corrected."

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