The trial of 12 former Atlanta Public Schools employees accused of cheating got under way Monday, and it’s expected to be a long one. As jury selection begins, potential jurors are bracing themselves for a three-month trial.
Legal experts say the trial will spur intense interest, and not only because Atlanta residents want to know if top school administrators and teachers are guilty of forging standardized tests.
GPB talked to B.J. Bernstein, one of Atlanta’s top criminal defense attorneys, about the APS trial.
And first off, she says it isn’t the type of trial Georgians read about every day.
“There are some cases such as this where there are multiple defendants so that each lawyer gets to make an opening and closing argument,” she said. “Each lawyer gets to question the jury. That’s what ends up taking a long period of time.”
The most high-profile defendant in the wider cheating scandal is former superintendent Beverly Hall, who is dying of cancer. She faces a separate trial for her alleged part in a scheme that prosecutors say included cheating parties where teachers and administrators changed students’ answers en masse.
The original cheating accusations emerged in 2009 as many students’ test scores unexpectedly rose, raising questions. Since then allegations, investigations and some guilty pleas have kept the story in the news.
Bernstein says the defense attorneys and the prosecutors know most potential jurors will be familiar with the case. And she says that’s okay.
“It’s not that you’ve never heard of this but: ‘What have you heard and is your mind shut down because of what you’ve heard?’” she said. “You’re just wanting a fair and impartial juror, not a juror who has never heard of the case.”
Now if you think, you would find an excuse to bail on jury duty if you were in their shoes, think again. Bernstein says no one wants to give up months of their lives for a trial. But gaming the system isn’t an option.
“If they start to game, one of the trends now, if judges truly think you are misrepresenting or saying things to be outrageous to avoid jury service, they consider holding you in contempt of court,” she said.