By Jaime Sarrio

Ten former Atlanta educators convicted of racketeering in a test cheating scandal have been given an evening to make a life-changing decision: apologize for their crimes and waive a right to appeal or go to jail.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said he planned to sentence the educators to prison, but after hours of emotional testimony from friends, family and colleagues and a morning argument with District Attorney Paul Howard, he had a change of heart. Just before taking a break at 2 p.m., Baxter told the educators he would agree to a deal negotiated by the prosecution for reduced sentences.

"I see all the pain in this room. It is a tragedy for all of you. You've been punished a good bit so far," Baxter said after about four hours of tearful pleas from defendants' family members and friends. "I thought I had a fair sentence. This morning it came to me, the only reason I would send you to jail is for retribution. And I think I made my point."

The sentencing hearing is scheduled to resume Tuesday at 10 a.m.

This morning, Howard and several defense attorneys met to barter a deal that would require the educators to apologize and waive their right to appeal. Under that compromise, the defendants would be given punishments ranging from one year of weekends in jail and a $10,000 fine for former administrators to one year of home confinement and a $1,000 fine for former teachers and testing coordinators.

But by the time the hearing started, it was unclear whether the judge would approve the deal. He appeared frustrated through the hearing when defendants and lawyers said they didn't necessarily agree with the jury's findings. But after hours of testimony, the judge appeared to be more open to a deal.

"I think the best thing for our community (is) for Paul Howard to talk to each of you and to enter pleas and for us all to go about our business, and to pray for these kids who got cheated. See if y'all get that worked out, and we will do it this afternoon."

But the judge warned that educators who do not take the deal will face stiff sanctions.

"I have the sentence in my mind and it involves going to jail, everybody," he said.

Under the earlier proposal, former principal Dana Evans, teacher Angela Williamson, testing coordinator Donald Bullock and assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan would have received six months of weekends in jail, a $5,000 fine, 5 years of probation and community service.

Former teacher Pam Cleveland, teacher Diane Buckner-Webb and testing coordinator Theresa Copeland would have received one year of home confinement in which they would have some freedom of movement during the day, a $1,000 fine, five years of probation and community service.

After months of testimony, a jury of six men and six women on April 1 convicted 11 of the 12 defendants. Retired special education teacher Dessa Curb was acquitted.

The guilty Atlanta educators were facing unprecedented prison sentences of five to 20 years because of the RICO charges against them. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was initially used by prosecutors to put away gangsters involved in organized crimes such as extortion and murder. In a novel use of the law, it's being for educators conspiring to inflate student scores on the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Test to keep jobs and earn bonuses.

One defendant, former Dunbar Elementary School first-grade teacher Shani Robinson, was pregnant at the time of the conviction, and will be sentenced in August.

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)