CORRECTION: AUSA Bret Hobson, not AUSA Brent Gray, gave opening statement.
Opening statements, jailhouse videos, and three witnesses’ testimony kicked off suspended Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill’s federal trial Thursday in Atlanta. Hill is charged with seven counts of depriving pretrial detainees’ civil rights under color of law. Hill has pleaded not guilty.
Before the jury was sworn in, Judge Eleanor Ross called in Juror 40, who she said had sent an e-mail early this morning, saying he no longer thought he could be fair and asking to be taken off the jury. Although Ross did not read part of Juror 40’s e-mail that would have revealed which side he felt prejudiced against, she did read the rest of the e-mail before the jury entered the courtroom: “‘In reference to this case, my spirit is not settled and my heart is troubled. I was not able to sleep. No matter what, I will’—and he says what he will do—’I could not even eat and enjoy my dinner…I could not be able to fully focus knowing I will not change my opinion no matter what.'”
Ross brought in Juror 40 and asked, “Is it your position that you cannot be fair?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“You stand on your sentiments in your e-mail?”
“Thank you. You are excused, sir.”
At 9:42 a.m. the jury was brought in, sworn, and given basic directions:
- It’s the jury’s job to reach a verdict. It’s the judge’s job to worry about sentencing.
- The judge will instruct the jury on the law.
- Evidence can be direct (like eyewitness testimony) or circumstantial (indirect but derived from the facts).
- If a defendant (Hill) does not testify, that is not evidence of anything. That is his right.
- If the judge sustains an objection, the jury should not infer anything about what might have been said had the judge allowed the speaker to continue.
- What the judge or lawyers do or say is not evidence.
- The government has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecution: “the right to be free from unreasonable force”
Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Bret Hobson gave the government’s opening statement, noting that the seven alleged victims in the case had been “pretrial detainees,” meaning that they had been arrested and booked into the jail, but had not been tried by a jury nor sentenced by a judge. “Nevertheless, shortly after the arrival, Sheriff Hill took it upon himself to teach them a lesson,” Hobson said. Six of the men were strapped into the restraint chair and had their hands cuffed behind them, he said, with one man who also had been strapped into the chair had his hands cuffed to the sides. All suffered “serious pain, several urinated on themselves, some had visible injuries with scars on their wrists today.”
Hobson added, “The United States is a democracy. In a democracy, every citizen has certain rights,” including “the right to be free from unreasonable force from law enforcement officers. And this right does not go away when a citizen is arrested and taken to the jail to be held as a pretrial detainee.” That right stands, even if the pretrial detainee is later found “100 percent guilty.”
Hobson explained that people in the Clayton County Jail are called “pretrial detainees,” adding, “because they have not been found guilty, the Constitution forbids jailer punishment, specifically of pretrial detainees.” Such punishment, he said, is unconstitutional.
He said the jury could find Hill used unreasonable force if either one of these are true:
- if the force did not serve a legitimate government purpose; or:
- if the force was excessive in relation to such a purpose.
In other words, if the force was used to exact revenge, that would not be a legitimate government purpose. If the purpose was legitimate—for example, to keep order in the jail—only the least amount of force actually necessary to maintain that order is legal.
Hobson said that jailers cannot use force as deterrence, to scare a detainee, to teach them a lesson, to use dominance, or to settle a personal score. And if a pretrial detainee cooperates with officers, he said, then there is no need to use force at all.
Hobson pointed to the restraint chair chair manufacturer’s recommendation (two hours max), as well as to CCSO’s own policy (four hours max) that states an inmate will be removed when they are no longer a threat to themselves or others: “The evidence shows that Sheriff Hill violated his own policies. You will hear testimony that Sheriff Hill always orders the full four hours, and that no one could change [that] but Hill himself.”
He told jurors briefly about each alleged victim:
- Joseph Arnold, who was arrested about three weeks after he allegedly had pushed an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter in a Forest Park grocery store;
- Glenn Howell, whom Hill called after Howell had gotten into a dispute with CCSO deputy, Lt. Josh Guthrie, over landscaping work and who cursed out Hill on the phone. Hill then FaceTimed Howell, telling told him not to call again. They exchanged a couple of more texts. Hill later sent the Fugitive Squad into Butts County looking for Howell, who later went with his attorney to turn himself in. After he was booked, Hill and Guthrie showed up at the jail, had Howell cuffed and strapped into a restraint chair, and left him there for four hours.
- Desmond Bailey, who allegedly had drugs and guns at his house. He did not fight arrest and an officer let him out to use the restroom before arriving at the jail. Once he was booked, Hill, surrounded by SRT officers, quizzed him on his alleged crime. When he said he pleaded the Fifth and asked for an attorney, Hill allegedly had him strapped into a restraint chair, with his hands cuffed behind his back, for four hours.
- Raheem Peterkin, who allegedly had pointed a gun at two men in a car in front of his house. Hill, surrounded by SRT officers, asked, “Why’d you point that gun? You like pointing guns?” and had him put in the chair, hands cuffed behind his back, for four hours.
- CH, who allegedly trashed his mother’s house “over failure to pay for the Internet.” Levon H, Hill’s godson, arrested H and texted Hill. “How old?” Hill texted back. “17”, H replied. Hill’s response: “Chair.” The 17-year-old was cuffed and did four hours in the chair. Hill later showed up at the jail and ordered the teen restrained for another four hours in the chair, hands cuffed behind his back. CH was wheeled into a room where another pretrial detainee, Joseph Harper, also was restrained in a chair.
- Joseph Harper, who had caused problems for Hill’s girlfriend, was arrested. Hill texted her, “They are expecting Joseph,” She replied, “Thanks.” Hill then texted, “I will see him when I leave this meeting.” Two hours later, Hill texted her a video of himself, telling both Harper and CH that they “need a man to kick y’all in the ass” and that, if he heard about either one of them again, “I will sit your asses in that chair for 16 hours straight.”
- Walter Thomas, who was arrested for speeding and driving with an expired Florida license, was too slow to face the wall in the jail. Hill allegedly had him put in the restraint chair for four hours with his hands cuffed behind his back.
None of the men posed a threat during transport or booking, Hobson told the jury, but Hill used force anyway, despite his own annual state-mandated training in use of force.
“You only have to find [Hill] used force when it was not necessary,” Hobson said.
Defense: “A potentially volatile and dangerous situation”
Defense attorney Marissa Goldberg’s opened by describing the Clayton County Jail’s sally port—the “non-public” entrance behind the black gate on the side of the jail: “A large armor-type vehicle sits across the way. The exterior is neat and orderly…very clean. On the wall is the sheriff’s logo and the words, ‘We defend those who cannot defend themselves.’ And there are signs…’This is not my house. This is Sheriff Victor Hill’s house, better known as the Hill-ton. I will do as I am told.”
Goldberg said the Clayton County Jail is not like other jails, that Hill is not like other sheriffs, and that the jail has a reputation for being strict and orderly. “People are there because they have been placed under arrest and are looking at giving up their liberties for a long or short period of time,” she said.
Goldberg explained that a county sheriff is a “constitutional officer”—someone whose job is specified in the Georgia Constitution—and that he is “the highest law enforcement officer in the county” with a “duty to protect lives” of Clayton County residents. “Sheriff Hill takes that seriously,” she said. Throughout his life, she said, Hill has had “a real calling and passion for what he does and for his community,” who has “overwhelmingly elected him over and over again to the position of sheriff for more than a decade.”
She cited the sheriff’s four main duties:
- courthouse safety
- executing warrants
- “general law enforcement responsibilities”
- jail administration and safety
The sheriff has to develop a safety plan for the jail, where, she pointed out, many civilians, medical personnel, and employees work “unarmed and in a potentially volatile and dangerous situation.” The jail contains a mix of people, some charged with more serious crimes, some with less serious ones, and there are about 15 jailers for about 2,000 pretrial detainees at any one time. She described the paramilitary atmosphere as being like a boot camp, with officers saluting superiors when they passed and detainees facing the wall and making their beds. “They’re very transparent and they run tours through the jail,” she said.
Goldberg said that intake is the most dangerous place because “people coming off the street, their adrenaline may be high, they’re upset, they may be suffering from some mental disturbance at that time.”
She said all seven alleged victims have their own background stories, “but Sheriff Victor Hill doesn’t get to pick and choose” who gets put in jail. “All seven had something in their background that have Sheriff Hill some concern about how they would adjust.”
Goldberg referred to the “safety restraint chair” as “a commonly used tool in the United States” and likened it to handcuffs and “light shackles.”
“It is not fun,” she said. “Nobody wants to be in the chair. But nothing in the jail is fun.”
Related story to come: Witnesses describe video of Hill’s interactions with prisoners in restraint chairs
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