by Robin Kemp
UPDATE 10:18 p.m. ADDS courtroom sketch by Richard Miller
UPDATE 5:21 p.m. with Hill’s plea, court proceedings, U.S. Acting AG’s comments to press
Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill entered a plea of not guilty in federal court April 27 on charges he violated the civil rights, under color of law, of four pretrial detainees in the Clayton County Jail.
The Clayton Crescent broke the news of Hill’s indictment Tuesday morning.
Hill is charged with depriving the four men–one of whom had just turned 17–of their Constitutional and civil rights, said federal law enforcement officials, by using “unnecessary force in violation of the due process rights of detainees.”
A U.S. Marshal escorted Hill, who wore a gray suit jacket and large white shirt cuffs turned back over red handcuffs, into U.S. Magistrate Judge Russell G. Vineyard’s courtroom at 3 p.m. to enter his not guilty plea. Vineyard told Hill the charges stemmed from Hill’s alleged repeated use of restraint chairs in the Clayton County Jail as punishment “for a period exceeding that justified by any legitimate nonpunitive government purpose,” according to a federal grand jury indictment:
The case is United States of America v. Victor Hill, case # 1:21-cr-143. As a Level 4 offense, prosecutors say, Hill could face up to 10 years on each of the four counts should a grand jury find him criminally guilty. If the grand jury convicts him of a misdemeanor offense, he could be sentenced to up to one year on each charge. A judge could impose enhancements for the victims’ alleged injuries.
Vineyard asked Hill whether he had a copy of the charges in front of him. Hill stood up and said, “Yes, Your Honor.” The judge replied, “You can stay seated. Just pull the microphone closer.”
Hill’s attorney, Drew Findley, said there was “some confusion” because Hill’s other attorney, Marissa Goldberg, had shown Hill an electronic copy of the charges but that Hill did not have a paper copy in front of him at that time. A copy was quickly supplied and Hill proceeded to answer the judge’s routine questions, such as whether he understood the charges against him, his right to exercise the Fifth Amendment, whether he had retained counsel, and whether he waived his right to have the charges read in open court, with “Yes, Your Honor.”
The prosecution said it anticipated the trial would take two to five weeks, possibly a little longer, and recommended Hill be released on bond.
Findley objected to restricting Hill to the Northern District of Georgia, saying Hill had known about the case “since early summer,” had made no attempt to leave the jurisdiction, and “will be vigorously defending this case.”
Vineyard replied, “What is the issue with being restricted to the Northern District of Georgia without prior notice?”
When Findley hesitated, Vineyard pointed out the requirement is “pretty standard.”
“He never has moved before…that’s the only reason,” Findley explained.
Vineyard said, “I’m going to impose the same conditions that I would impose on other defendants,” including reporting to a pretrial supervisor, not leaving the Northern District without the supervisor’s advance permission, surrendering his passport, giving a DNA sample if asked, avoiding excessive alcohol, only taking prescribed drugs, and not buying any new firearms or selling any existing ones. The prosecution had noted the government usually restricts firearms but that the restrictions seemed “reasonable.”
At 3:12 p.m., Hill signed paperwork and was granted a $50,000 appearance bond. Vineyard warned Hill that, should he violate the conditions of his bond, he could be held in contempt and imprisoned, fined, or both, and that any other felony offense could get him prison time and a $250,000 fine.
At 3:16 p.m., court was adjourned and Hill was cuffed up again and led to the ninth floor to be released on bond.
A case sealed, then unsealed
The case was filed on April 19. Judge Vineyard ordered the indictment sealed on April 19 at the request of Erskine and Gray because “[t]he defendant is an armed law enforcement officer. The arrest will need to be planned and coordinated for the safety of the Defendant and federal agents”:
Erskine later asked the court to unseal the application yesterday (Monday, April 26) because “the Defendant’s arrest has been coordinated and…unsealing the indictment is necessary to prepare for an initial appearance”:
Brent A. Gray and Bret Reed Hobson are listed as representing the United States government in the case.
According to the four-count indictment, Victim J.A. was arrested by Forest Park Police and Clayton County deputies for “allegedly assault[ing] two women during a dispute about who was next in line at a Clayton County grocery store.” (At the time, the suspect was identified as Joseph Kenneth Arnold, who was charged with battery and battery on school personnel in an alleged attack on 60-year-old Kathy Malone and her 80-year-old mother, Mary Gardner, at the Wholesale Food Outlet on Jonesboro Road.) As J.A. was being booked into the Clayton County Jail, Hill allegedly asked him what he had been doing in Clayton County the day of the incident. “J.A. replied, ‘It’s a democracy, sir. It’s the United States.’ Defendant HILL snapped back, ‘No, it’s not. Not in my county.'”
The indictment alleges that, “When J.A. asked whether he was entitled to a fair and speedy trial, Defendant HILL replied, ‘Roll that chair around here. You stay out of Clayton County, you understand me? You sound like a dummy.’ When J.A. again asked whether he was entitled to a fair and speedy trial, Defendant HILL replied, ‘You entitled to sit in this chair, and you’re entitled to get the hell out of my county and don’t come back. That’s what you’re entitled to. You sound like a damn jackass. Don’t you ever put your hand on a woman like that again. You’re fortunate that wasn’t my mother or grandmama or you wouldn’t be standing there. Now, sit there and see if you can get some damn sense in your head.'” J.A. allegedly was “strapped into a restraint chair and left there for hours per Defendant HILL’s orders.”
Counts Two and Three
On April 26, the indictment continues, 17-year-old C.H. allegedly got into an argument with his mother, vandalized their home, and left. A CCSO deputy arrested C.H. and handed him over to the Clayton County Police Department. The deputy, who also was a supervisor, allegedly texted Hill a photo of the teen handcuffed inside a CCPD vehicle:
“Defendant HILL: How old is he?”
“Defendant HILL: Chair”
The teen was booked into the Clayton County Jail on charges related to the incident at his home, according to the indictment, and allegedly “was strapped into a restraint chair and left there several hours per Defendant HILL’s orders.”
On April 27, 2020, the indictment alleges, Victim J.H. was arrested by Jonesboro Police “following a domestic disturbance with possible drug use.” While at the Jonesboro Police station, “J.H. fell out of a chair after apparently pretending to pass out” and was taken to Southern Regional Medical Center. Once there, J.H. “refused treatment and left the building.” Jonesboro Police caught him later that afternoon and “did not cooperate or comply with officers’ commands and had to be carried down some steps and placed into a patrol car,” where he “again appeared to feign unconsciousness but offered no resistance.”
When he got to the Clayton County Jail, the indictment alleges, J.H. was “strapped into a restraint chair and left there for several hours” on Hill’s orders, “not allowed to go to the restroom and urinated on the restraint chair. While C.H. and J.H. were both strapped in restraint chairs near each other, Defendant HILL confronted them. Referring to C.H., Defendant HILL said, ‘You know what he did yesterday? He went and destroyed his mother’s house yesterday. That’s what this asshole right here did.’ Addressing both C.H. and J.H., Defendant HILL then opined, ‘I think both of y’all are just assholes that need a man to kick y’all in the ass and y’all be okay. I don’t think y’all are bad people….Now I’m going to tell you something. If I hear about you (C.H.) messing up your mama’s house again, if I hear about you (J.H.) fighting cops and faking and going to Southern Regional and then walking out and pulling out the I.V., I’m a sit your ass in that chair for sixteen hours straight. Do you understand me? I need to hear from both of y’all that y’all are not gonna show y’all’s ass in my county no more.”
The fourth victim named in the federal indictment, Victim G.H., had gotten into a dispute with a CCSO deputy over payment for landscaping work he had done for the deputy in Butts County. The Clayton Crescent previously reported on the incident involving Glenn B. Howell and Hill. Howell filed a federal suit against Hill last year.
“After learning of the dispute, Defendant HILL called G.H. on April 23, 2020….identified himself as the Clayton County Sheriff and asked G.H. why he was harassing his deputy. G.H. replied that Defendant Hill should tell his deputy to pay his bill and added, ‘You can go fuck yourself.’ The call then ended.”
At the time, G.H. allegedly was not sure whether the caller was really the sheriff and placed several FaceTime calls “until Defendant HILL answered and removed a mask he was wearing,” Hill then allegedly “texted G.H., warning him not to call or text anymore. G.H. responded via text, ‘So this is Victor Hill correct.'” Hill allegedly texted G.H. a second warning not to call or text him.
The next day, Hill allegedly “instructed a CCSO deputy to swear out an arrest warrant against G.H. for harassing communications.” On April 24, according to the indictment, Hill texted G.H., “‘[T]his is Sheriff Victor Hill. We have a warrant for your arrest. Would you like to turn yourself in, or have my Deputies find you?’ G.H. did not respond.” Hill sent a similar message April 25: “‘My Deputies are actively looking for you. We have not and will not agree for you to turn yourself in when you want to. Turn yourself in today.’ Meanwhile, Defendant HILL had sent a fugitive squad armed with handguns and AR-15 rifles to Butts County in an attempt to arrest G.H. on the misdemeanor arrest warrant.”
G.H. got a lawyer and turned himself in April 27. About half an hour after he was booked into the Clayton County Jail, the indictment alleges, surveillance video shows G.H. “appeared cooperative and compliant, before Defendant HILL arrived and confronted him. Immediately upon Defendant HILL’s arrival…G.H. was strapped into a restraint chair and left there for several hours per Defendant HILL’s orders.”
McRae: “Badges and guns” don’t trump Constitution
In a press conference immediately following Hill’s appearance, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Kurt Erskine said, “While the vast majority of our law enforcement officers perform their duties bravely, professionally, and with honor, those few who abuse their power must be held accountable. Our Constitution prohibits law enforcement officers from using unreasonable force. Without justification, Sheriff Hill allegedly ordered four detainees to be strapped into restraint chairs for hours. In so doing, he caused pain and injury to the detainees in his care. Sheriff Hill’s actions, as alleged by the grand jury, deprived the citizens he was sworn to protect of their civil rights. Such abuses of power not only harm the victims, they also erode the community’s trust in law enforcement.”
Erskine added, “He chose to administer punishment, as opposed to using the chair appropriately, as alleged in the indictment.”
FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chris MacRae told reporters gathered outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, “Badges and guns don’t come with the authority to ignore the Constitution. They come with the responsibility to protect it from anyone who would violate it, especially another public servant. Sheriff Hill is alleged to have abused his privileges and abandoned his responsibilities and the FBI is committed to restoring trust in law enforcement by holding him accountable.”
The Clayton Crescent asked when the investigation began and what specifically had prompted it.
“I can’t speak to that,” Erskine replied.
Asked whether he could confirm the FBI had taken a chair from the Clayton County Jail last summer, during a raid on Hill’s office, Erskine said, “That’s not something I can speak to.”
Hill: Case is politically motivated
Via his Nixle account, Hill said, “Today I will begin the process of fighting a political[ly] motivated federal legal case. My legal team are the only ones authorized to speak on the details of this matter, and they are confident about the facts of this case. Meanwhile, as we go through this process, I will continue to focus on the mission of fighting crime in Clayton County for continued success.”
On Tuesday morning, Hill’s legal advisor, Alan G. Parker, said he was having trouble with the signal and would return The Clayton Crescent’s call from a better location. He did not call back.
Because of COVID-19, no federal jury trials will take place until at least after May 2. However, according to a court order, grand jurors may be summoned, grand jury proceedings may be held, and prospective jurors may be summoned for both civil and criminal trials slated to begin after May 2. While cases are running about 13 to 14 months behind, a judge could move Hill’s case up on the schedule.
Hill has come under increased scrutiny in the past year over conditions at the Clayton County Jail.