After listening to four hours of tributes to the sterling characters of the 10 APS defendants and pleas to spare them jail time, Fulton Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter was still willing to put them behind bars — unless they hammer out deals with Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard in the next 18 hours. Sentencing resumes Tuesday morning.
Baxter said he had come to court this morning resolved that everybody found guilty by the jury two weeks ago should go to jail. “My fair sentence involves going to jail. Everybody,” he said.
But he had a change of heart on a day that began with what he called a major meltdown after Howard told him he had talked to the defendants’ attorneys over the weekend about possible deals.
“I cussed him out this morning. It was pretty bad,” said Baxter in the courtroom.
After apologizing to Howard several times, each one more heartfelt, Baxter said he was more open to allowing the 10 to negotiate deals to keep them out of jail if they apologize and agree to waive their right to appeal.
However, Baxter was still frustrated the 11 defendants chose to go to trial rather than take the plea deals accepted by other APS educators. (Only 10 of the 11 are being sentenced this week as one just gave birth.)
Baxter fell back repeatedly on a train metaphor for the missed plea deal opportunities, saying he urged defendants to get off the train at the start of trial and during it. “Nobody got off the train. And the train wrecked.”
But a sticking point for him and Howard in any plea deals: The 10 have to admit responsibility and guilt for what they did and apologize.
That was not the tenor of most comments made by friends and families or the defendants who addressed the court on their own behalf. Baxter continually interrupted speakers who suggested the jury got it wrong in its guilty verdicts. He praised the jury, saying, “I think the verdict spoke the truth.”
His exasperation with criticism of the jury grew during the long and often-emotional parade of character witnesses. At one point during defendant Donald Bullock’s comments, Baxter asked, “Why don’t these people take responsibility?”
He was equally short with one of Bullock’s witnesses when he suggested the testing coordinator should not have been convicted. “Did you hear testimony against him? Bullock should have gotten off that train,” said Baxter.
When teacher Diane Buckner-Webb’s niece said she respected the jurors but did not agree with them, Baxter countered, “I agree with them.”
The most interesting exchanges were between Baxter and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who has opposed the criminal prosecution of the teachers and clung to that view even under pointed questions from the bench.
Young blamed the testing culture in American schools, paraphrasing a Victor Hugo quote used by the Rev. Martin Luther King: “When people are placed in darkness, crimes will be committed. The guilty are those who created the darkness.”
And when Young insisted he would throw out the entire case, Baxter talked about the children passed from grade to grade without being able to read who ultimately dropped out of high school, resorted to crime and ended up in his courtroom facing mandatory 10-year prison terms.
“There is more to this than let’s just forget about it and move on,” Baxter said
In response to an attorney comment, Baxter acknowledged the 10 educators did not pose a risk to the public. Sentencing them to jail was a matter of retribution and punishment, he said.
“I see all the pain in this room,” he said at the close. “It is a tragedy for all of you, defendants, families, friends. And you have been punished a good bit so far just based on what’s happened to your lives ever since this started going.”
“I thought I had a fair sentence. It is not what Mr. Howard, I think, informally worked out. Somehow, this morning it came to me,” said Baxter. “The only reason that I would send you to jail is 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 we enter pleas and we all go about our business and pray for these kids that got cheated.”