Originally created 12/11/97

Prosecution rests in test-switching case; one count dropped



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The prosecution rested its case Wednesday against two men accused of switching two high-school equivalency exams in order to help a Lowcountry magistrate keep his job.

But prosecutors did not escape unscathed, as U.S. District Judge Dennis Shedd granted a motion by defendant John Brown's lawyer to dismiss one count of false representation of a Social Security number.

Brown, an accountant and former employee of the state comptroller general's office, is accused of scheming with suspended top Education Department aide Stephon Edwards to switch the tests.

Edwards was indicted on two counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Brown still is charged with one count of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says Brown, a college graduate, took the General Equivalency Degree exam on the same day as then-Magistrate Ernest White. Prosecutors say Edwards and Brown then switched the tests so White could keep his job, which required a high school diploma or GED.

If convicted, Edwards could face as many as 15 years in jail and a $750,000 fine, prosecutors said. Brown could face as many as 10 years and a $500,000 fine.

State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Gaile Heath, a handwriting expert, testified Wednesday that she analyzed handwriting samples of the three men.

While it appeared White wrote the narrative portion of the GED test taken in August 1994, Brown's name was signed to the exam, Heath said. She said the signature appeared to be a simulation.

Heath also testified that correction fluid had been used to change information on a testing roster, and "there was some reason to believe Stephon Edwards made the change."

Fingerprint expert Wade Fleming, a Secret Service employee and former SLED agent, told jurors that the answer sheet that was changed to White's name had Brown's prints on it.

Edwards does not deny switching the tests but did not commit mail fraud, his lawyer said during opening remarks.

Prosecutors say the mail fraud occurred when Education Department officials mailed testing admission tickets to Brown and White.

The defense is set to present witnesses Thursday. Shedd told jurors they could get the case as early as Thursday evening, but advised lawyers it could drag into Saturday.

After prosecutors rested their case, lawyers for Edwards asked Shedd to throw out the charges against Edwards, but Shedd refused.

But the judge paused when Brown's lawyer, Nathaniel Roberson, asked for the Social Security charge to be dismissed. Roberson argued that the U.S. attorney's office did not produce sufficient evidence to present the count to the jury.

After a private meeting, Shedd announced he would dismiss the charge. The judge sealed the record of the meeting in his chambers until after the jury begins deliberations.

"I do not believe the jury could find ... beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Brown presented a false (Social) Security number," Shedd said, noting that the indictment specified the crime allegedly was committed Aug. 8, 1994, when he registered for the test.

Prosecutors now handling the case were not in charge when Edwards and Brown were indicted and said they were prepared to prove Brown falsified his Social Security number on Aug. 13, 1994.