Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was in court Thursday morning for a pretrial hearing before U.S. Northern District Court Judge Eleanor L. Ross. Prosecutors said they expect Hill’s trial on seven counts of violation of rights under color of law will last two weeks or two and a half weeks at most. Trial is set for October 12.
Hill pleaded not guilty in April 2021 to charges he violated the rights of four pretrial detainees, under color of law, by having them strapped into jailhouse restraint chairs as punishment. A superseding federal indictment added three more pretrial detainees to the case.
Jails can only use restraint chairs in very specific, limited circumstances for short periods of time, and can never use them as a form of punishment.
Hill sat with his defense team as both sides went over details of what they wanted Ross to allow the jury to hear during trial. Ross said her job was as “gatekeeper of the evidence,” and said she would not allow wider discussions of Hill’s authoritarian management style to create several additional “mini-trials” that would distract from the case at hand.
Ross also pointedly asked why one of Hill’s defense attorneys repeatedly used the term “inmate”—a term Hill uses—to refer to pretrial “detainees” who have not yet been convicted of the charges against them.
One issue was whether or not federal prosecutors had to prove Hill’s intent when he had the seven detainees strapped into jailhouse restraint chairs. Ross pointed out that the defense had repeatedly stated that “the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew his conduct was illegal.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret R. Hobson said, “It still concerns me that about what they think they can argue to the jury about willfulness…it’s just wrong.” He added that the government “proved” Hill acted with “reckless disregard” for the law, and that, because the seven detainees had the right to be free of the use of excessive force, it only needed to prove that Hill’s actions broke the law.
Ross also said she would not allow discussions of Hill’s fascination with Batman, although one of the jailhouse security videos might show a Batman logo on the wall.
“Unless he pulled out the Batman shield or claimed he was Batman,” Ross said, as Hill laughed.
The government’s pretrial motion in limine argued that Hill’s public statements before the trial could “improperly encourage jury nullification” and asked Ross to deny six particular lines of argument or evidence the defense might bring up:
- insinuations that the government pursued this prosecution for an improper purpose, that this is a novel theory of prosecution, that Hill’s misconduct is minor compared to other law enforcement misconduct, or that the government could have addressed Hill’s misconduct through a civil suit or other remedies short of criminal prosecution;
- implications that Hill’s previous good acts, accolades, commendations, or accomplishments excuse Hill’s misconduct;
- suggestions that Hill’s suspension from office has negatively impacted the community or that his conviction in this case would do so;
- suggestions that the victims’ past or subsequent misconduct or bad acts justify Hill’s unrelated infliction of harm to the victims;
- suggestions that unrelated incidents of violence in the jail justify Hill’s abusive law enforcement practices; and/or
- arguments that Hill’s suspension from office should satisfy the need for justice in this case or other discussions of the potential penalties Hill faces if convicted.
Ross ruled that she would allow 1, 3, and 6. On 2, the issue of whether the defense could introduce good deeds Hill had done, Ross said those were irrelevant.
“I would not allow evidence that Victor Hill spent every Saturday feeding the hungry or clothing the poor,” Ross said. She acknowledged that some witnesses might bring it up while on the stand, “but I’m not going to shut that down just because somebody said something positive about him.”
But, “if they go down the rabbit trail of all the wonderful, charitable things he’s ever done,” she won’t allow it.
Defense attorney Marissa Goldberg said the government “is going to try to get into the sheriff’s mind” about jail conditions, for example.
Ross said, “Both sides understand that, in my mind, this is a trial only about what he did do or what he didn’t do to these seven [alleged victims]. It’s not about jail conditions. It’s not about Batman.”
There also was some discussion about how much of what happened before the seven men were booked and what, if anything, Hill knew about the men from prior arrests, would be allowed.
Defense attorney Lynsey Barron said it was important to talk about the intake process, “because that’s where you’re most likely to see [detainees] acting out…and seeing what they can get away with.” She added that it would show the importance of how Hill sets the tone for behavior in the jail.
Barron also said that things like “Nutraloaf,” detainees facing the wall, and shouts of “Sheriff on deck!” were related to the restraint chair’s use at the jail and that chair use “cannot be isolated,” adding the jail “must set the tone for the inmate [sic] from the minute that they arrive.”
Ross asked, “What is the argument for why [Hill] would believe these measures have to be taken from Day One as part of the intake process?”
Barron replied that statistics showed violent incidents were most likely to happen during intake.
“How would you present that evidence?” Ross asked. “Would you call in an expert?”
Barron said that “remains to be seen,” and that the defense wasn’t sure that the government would call in an expert about excessive force.
“You don’t think the government could put evidence before a jury that, if a person was not fighting, was compliant, did everything he was told to do and was put in a chair, the government would need an expert to come in?” Ross asked.
Hobson said he had “no idea,” adding, “We don’t need an expert to prove excessive force.” He added that Clayton County Jail detainees are told at intake to face the wall—”it’s different from other prisons”—and that the seven detainees were put in a restraint chair, put on unnecessary suicide and mental health watches, three days of special meal management, and dressed in paper gowns, which he said was “improper.”
“The special meal management was marked on the form as punishment,” he added.
Ross said, “That changes my thought process a little bit. That does make it seem relevant, but I can also see the defense’s argument that they want to explain the need for doing these things. I’m still not sure why that’s needed at intake when there’s no evidence of need.”
Barron said the defense might not get into statistics, “but there will be anecdotal evidence of what happens in intake. The first thing you see in intake is a banged-up desk of civilians.” She said about ten civilians, outnumbering officers, were in intake, hence the need to “set a tone of control and order. That is a potentially dangerous situation. There are officers and civilians all over that jail.”
At times, Ross said it was hard for her to make a ruling on the various issues “with the lack of evidence” to support those arguments.
“Certainly, Sheriff Hill wants to show he set the tone,” she told the attorneys. “I’m inclined to let both sides get into some [of it].”
On question 4, Ross noted that Hill had seemed to know of one detainee, who had been in the jail several times before, and who allegedly had faked unconsciousness in the back seat of a patrol car, then punched someone. She also noted a text exchange Hill had with a “girlfriend” about one detainee’s arrest.
“The 17-year-old, he didn’t seem to know before,” Ross stated.
“The court is asking me to testify for Sheriff Hill,” Barron said.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” Ross said. “That’s not what I’m doing here.”
“What others have told [Hill] is allowed every day,” Barron replied.
“Yes, in an investigation,” Ross said, adding, “I’m a little put off by the insinuation that the court is asking to get into” what Hill knew. “This court has to make pretrial rulings. I can’t make determinations.”
Finally, Ross granted the motion on 2 “generally, to an extent;” on 4, “if past incidents related particular [detainees’] previous jail conduct;” and on 5, allowing unrelated jailhouse incidents to justify Hill’s actions to an extent, “because some jurors might not be be familiar with what a jail environment is,” as long as that’s used to explain general conditions and safety and not some other person “out of control” who is not related to the case.
Goldberg asked that evidence and testimony be limited to Hill’s acts only and not the acts of other jail staff, saying that the decision of how long detainees were made to sit in the chair and whether or not they could use the restroom “was not done at Sheriff Hill’s direction.”
She said she disagreed with “the implication or assumption that everything that happens in the jail is under [Hill’s] order” and that “I think there’s going to be strong evidence that Sheriff Hill never puts his hands on anybody.”
Ross replied, “The entire indictment will go back with the jury. Are you telling me that you want me to take this out of the indictment?”
Hobson told the court, “We will not insinuate that it was Sheriff Hill. Starting with the men peeing on themselves, that was a fact. There will be evidence that they were put in chairs at his order.” He added that everything that happened after that point was the result of Hill’s alleged orders, and that the evidence “is part of the story that happened to them.”
Ross agreed it was relevant. She also granted the defense’s motion to block mention of past lawsuits, Hill’s current suspension by Gov. Brian Kemp over the case, and indictments, and told the attorneys to instruct witnesses and that a suspension is not the same thing as a guilty verdict.
The government also asked that they be allowed to address the alleged climate of fear among CCSO employees, some of whom stood by while the detainees were strapped into the chairs but did nothing to stop it.
“Why? Because of fear of retaliation,” Hobson said.
“How is that not going beyond the indictment?” Ross asked.
Hobson said this was “not about all events generally. These people, in this situation, standing there watching these men being strapped in” should be allowed to testify about fear of retaliation. He said it went “one step farther” than doing what one’s boss tells one to do, with Hill allegedly telling a witness “my word is the word of God. If you don’t obey me, I will cut off your head and kick it down the hall.”
If that fear of retaliation is relevant, Ross said, it’s “unduly prejudicial. It’s enough to say they acted at [Hill’s] direction. That puts it back on him.” Should the defense open that door on cross-examination, Ross said, the attorneys would have to “ask to meet with the court outside the jury’s presence.”
Prosecutors also said that 5 “went to the absence of reports and documents about these incidents.”
Goldberg replied, “None of this has to do with the sheriff, again,” and said statements that Hill did not turn over documents via federal witness interview forms (called “302s”, short for FBI Interview Report Form FD-302) should not be introduced “in such a way to infer obstruction.” She also took issue with the “substantial amount of inferences that a lack of surveillance video in the case somehow was purposeful or intentional.”
Hobson said the government had asked CCSO for all use of force documents and all video of the seven detainees, “but only got some. Some by subpoena, some informally, some by search warrant.”
Ross allowed it.
As for 6, which was about whether the 7 detainees were arrested properly, Ross asked whether there had been an improper arrest. Hobson replied that Hill was a victim in the Glenn Howell arrest “because he swore out a harassing calls warrant.” That was the case in which Howell, a landscaper, got into a dispute with a CCSO deputy over a job. This escalated into calls between Howell and Hill, Hill swearing out the warrant, and a CCSO fugitive squad entering Butts County without a courtesy call to the local sheriff. Howell turned himself in at the jail, where, he told the AJC’s Leon Stafford, he allegedly was held in in a cell until Hill arrived and had him strapped into the chair.
All seven of the detainees will testify. Most of the rest of the 35 witnesses are current or former CCSO staff.
Ross also said, “I don’t want this to become some kind of soap opera” about relationships Hill had with people at the jail, specifically in reference to texts the government said Hill sent a girlfriend about one of the detainees, who allegedly had “bothered” her previously.
Ross asked whether Hill’s godson had been involved in any of the restraints; Howell said yes.
The rest of the hearing dealt with seating and instructing the jury. Ross said 32 jurors will qualify and that strikes will be “silent.” Both the trial and jury selection will take place in Courtroom 1708. Both sides agreed to a joint jury questionnaire, which Ross granted. Ross also told both sides to work together to condense the copy of the indictment that members of the jury will get.
Whenever the jury is seated, the trial will start the following day, she said. The first day of trial, October 12, could start as late as 1:30p.m., but both sides were advised to keep their morning available. Attorneys will come in at 9 a.m., jurors at 9:15 a.m., and trial will start at 9:30 a.m., running until about 4:30 p.m. daily. If the attorneys have nothing to take up, she said, the trial might start a little early; trial also could run past 4:30 p.m. some days.
Watching the proceedings was CCSO Major Brandon Criss, in civilian clothes. For the past few months, Criss has served as one of three bodyguards for District 1 Commissioner Alieka Anderson, District 2 Commissioner Gail Hambrick, and District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin during Board of Commissioners meetings.
One of the other bodyguards is Hill’s godson.
Criss also wrote a letter asking for a lesser sentence for former CCSO Chief of Staff and Hill campaign consultant Mitzi Bickers at her sentencing on nine federal counts related to conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and filing false tax returns in the Atlanta City Hall contract-steering scandal.
Outside the courthouse, The Clayton Crescent asked defense attorney Drew Findling if he felt pretty good about the case. Findling replied, “Yes.”
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