Jurors resume deliberations Monday morning in the case of U.S.A. v. Victor Hill. Hill is charged with seven counts of depriving pretrial detainees of their rights under color of law by allegedly using restraint chairs as a form of punishment.
Federal prosecutors argue that Hill was wrong to order the detainees into the chair based on their actions before they got to the jail. They pointed to video recordings and testimony from former CCSO jail staff and nurses from CorrectHealth, the jail’s healthcare contractor, which indicated that the seven detainees had been calm and following instructions when they were brought to the jail. The government says that’s why Hill should not have ordered the men into the restraint chairs. If the sheriff can use any previous act he deems violent, noncompliant, or disrespectful, then he would be able to pull anybody off the street at any time and strap them into the chair. Because the sheriff is not a judge, he cannot mete out punishment, and the Constitution forbids punishing people who have not yet been tried in a court of law.
The defense, which repeatedly referred to Hill as “the elected sheriff of Clayton County,” argues that the government is trying to overrule the will of the majority of voters in Clayton County who chose Hill as sheriff. Gov. Brian Kemp suspended Hill, on the recommendation of a two-sheriff panel, pending the outcome of the trial.
The jury received instructions act 9:23 a.m. Friday morning from U.S. Northern District of Georgia Judge Eleanor Ross, then heard closing arguments from the government and the defense. Each side was given an hour to make their final case to the jury.
Ross went over the legal definitions of several key terms:
- Use of force
- Act under color of state law
- Bodily injury
She explained that only one of two factors needed to be true for the jury to find Hill guilty on a particular charge. Ross also said that the “possible guilt of others” was not a defense against a criminal charge.
“You must never consider consider punishment in any way,” she warned the jurors. “The punishment is for the judge alone to determine later.”
If the jury finds Hill guilty on any count, then it also must decide whether the victim in that count suffered a bodily injury, no matter how temporary. An injury added to a count would increase the possible penalty that Hill could face.
Two hours after receiving the case, the jury sent Ross a note: “Can we be provided a dictionary to determine word definitions?” Ross denied the request, adding, “Also, please do not use your telephones as previously instructed, for any research, including looking up definitions.”
At 9:43 a.m., Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Gray thanked the jurors for their time serving in “this otherwise nondescript building.”
“Every time you drive by it, you will remember this event for the rest of your life,” he said.
“You have seen something more than most juries see,” Gray said. “This is nice, this is pretty, this is a beautiful courtroom, everybody’s polite, ‘yes sir,’ ‘no, sir,’ people get up. You got to see what it looks like on the other end when people get arrested, when people aren’t polite and not dressed in their best every day. The Constitution applies at the beginning, here, and at the end, in the jail. It’s the same. Sheriff Hill is considered not guilty, just like everyone in the Clayton County Jail.”
Gray told the jury to consider “facts that are not in controversy” and presented his short list.
According to Gray, Hill “admits that he’s acting under color of law in all seven of these instances.” He noted “this is not a ‘whodunit’ or ‘what happened.’ He admits in six of the seven that ‘I put them there.’…All seven claimed bodily injury. They claimed it hurt. A real surprise, right?”
As to the department’s use of force policy, “Sheriff Hill says ‘It’s my policy.'” That policy, he noted, defines “superior force” as “‘that force superior to that which is being used by the subject’—darn good evidence that he knew it was wrong.”
Gray continued, “The restraint chair policy is not in debate. We know it exists” because Hill wrote it.
A major point the government wanted to drive home was that Hill allegedly had decided to put people in the restraint chair well before they got to the jail, even though they were compliant and posed no threat during transport and booking. Gray emphasized the timing between an instance of bad behavior and the moment a detainee is put into the chair: “‘exhibiting,’ present tense, ‘exhibiting, violent or uncontrollable behavior’….Exhibiting, exhibiting. Not ‘ever in his life exhibited,’ but exhibiting.”
Gray went down the list of witnesses who had testified against Hill, asking the jury, “Can you believe him?”
“Leconte Jackson…former SRT commander, assistant jail commander…swore to you that Glenn Howell was no trouble at all. Can you believe him? That Joseph Arnold was no trouble at all. Can you believe him? I was confident you would because we had video…but it doesn’t really matter, because Sheriff Hill agrees. He can’t really point to anything Glenn Howell or Joseph Arnold did.
“Eugene Peterkin… a real military man, done almost everything you can do at the sheriff’s office. He spent hours around Desmond Bailey. He was fine. We had no issues with Desmond Bailey. Did he have some guns in his house? Maybe. Drugs? Maybe. That didn’t matter to Major Peterkin—he was fine. Do you think Eugene Peterkin, a military man, is going to come into a federal courtroom, swear an oath, and lie for Desmond Bailey?”
He continued, “You might notice a trend. Trouble starts when Hill shows up. DB says, ‘I don’t want to talk,’ which is of course his right. And Hill says, ‘Put his ass in the chair.’ Can we believe Desmond Bailey? Maybe. The detective went to talk to him, he told him ‘I don’t want to talk,’ he has a lawyer….which is just what Desmond Bailey says he said to the defendant [Hill].
“Officer [Fritz] Georges with Riverdale Police said Raheim Peterkin was no trouble at all. No doubt there was a standoff. There was a gun at least in the hamper. What Georges tells you is that after he was in handcuffs, he was fine. He says, ‘We were joking.’ So what does the defendant [Hill] do?” Gray noted the defense “put in hours of video and Peterkin arrives at the jail. They put it in to make Mr. Peterkin look as bad as they can. Go back and look at it again. He went in and sat on the bench, just before he was put into the chair.”
Gray reminded the jurors about testimony by Clayton County Police Department officers Stephen Robinson and Anthony Tigner and urged them to look again at video of the 17-year-old’s arrest, “with his hands behind his back walking. He was scared. He was crying. He was no trouble. He was handed off to Tigner, who came into the courtroom and said he was no trouble. ‘They were so easy we put them both in the back seat with me driving by myself’…and at the jail, they immediately put [the 17-year-old] in the chair. Sheriff Hill had no custody over [the 17-year-old]. He sent a text message to his godson [Levon Allen]. Do you remember how many words? One. ‘Chair.'”
“Tabatha Givens said this was a tired, scared kid who was awakened from a nap and put back into a restraint chair for another four or five hours. Can you believe her? Of course you can. But it doesn’t matter anyway. This man”—Gray pointed to Hill—”told us yesterday ‘I had already made the decision before he got to the jail. Because I think that I have the place to strap this man into a restraint chair for ten hours because I need to kick his ass.”
Hopkins. He was a huge chunk of dead weight but he wasn’t aggressive. Usually, you can’t pretend to be unconscious and be violent….He was doing nothing that under the Constitution would allow him to be strapped in a chair. And then Sheriff Hill came in. Was there any doubt that he know Hopkins’ hands were cuffed behind his back? He recorded it to show his girlfriend….’so she can hear me say, Mr. Hopkins, the next time that you do this I’m gonna put your ass in that chair for 16 hours straight.'”
He recalled Anthony Weeks’ testimony about Walter Thomas, who had been “speeding on his way from Florida from going to see his godmother on Mother’s Day. ‘He was in a cell and Sheriff Hill ordered me to put him in the chair. I wrote a report.’ He continued—Mr. Thomas was the speeder—to have the audacity to continue to look at Sheriff Hill and continue to talk. You cannot do that at the Clayton County Jail. Not while he’s in charge. There was no impeachment at all of Anthony Weeks. Is Anthony Weeks telling the truth? The testimony that Mr. Thomas ‘got very, very aggressive’ is not the truth. My goodness, how fortunate would Walter Thomas be if Anthony Weeks were lying?” Gray said sarcastically.
“Mr. Rashawn Johnson said of Mr. Howell, ‘I found him to be a gentleman.’ I don’t know if he’s a gentleman or not, but Mr. Johnson, the security officer, said he was a gentleman: ‘He did everything I told him to do.’ Fortunately, the FBI served a search warrant at the jail, found video that 100% corroborates what Mr. Howell said….’I just tried to follow the rules and they put me in a cell with a door lock. I was controlled.’…Just remember, just a few days before, Mr. Howell told Sheriff Hill to F himself. Hmm. Wonder if those could be related? Tell this man ‘go F yourself’ and find yourself in a restraint chair two days later? It didn’t matter. [Hill] had already decided. ‘That’s what I’m here for. It’s part of my mission to kick their ass.’
Gray added that Hill’s testimony about what Howell allegedly had done before he turned himself in, and what he did a year after his arrest, had no bearing on whether Hill could put Howell in a restraint chair.
“There was no evidence that he ran a woman off the road,” Gray told the jury. “The defense brought in an officer eleven months after the fact to say Mr. Howell was drunk and belligerent.” However, he added, the defense did not bring in witnesses to corroborate claims that Howell had torn up the deputy’s yard, run the deputy’s girlfriend off the road, or stalked the deputy at home. And then there were “the ‘F you’ and ‘Go F yourself’ comments” Howell had made to Hill.
About Howell’s intoxicated behavior at The Battery eleven months after the arrest, which Howell said was caused by someone slipping GHB into his beer, “Victor Hill couldn’t have been considering Mr. Howell’s being drunk eleven months later because it had not happened at the time he decided to put Mr. Howell in a restraining chair.”
“Officer Bridges from Cobb County, he doesn’t know anything about Mr. Howell’s conduct the year before. Was Mr. Hill drunk eleven months later and hollering out the name Victor Hill? Probably. I bet Mr. Hill is someone Mr. Howell thinks about a lot.”
Gray pointed to the series of law enforcement officers who had testified in the case: “Not a single law enforcement officer cam in here and gave a reason to put anybody in a chair. It was the exact opposite: everyone came in and [said], ‘Sheriff Hill told me to put them in the chair. He told me to do it, the guys were fine, he told me to do it.'”
As for Chief Deputy Roland Boehrer, the second-in-command at CCSO, Gray said, “Twenty-five years in law enforcement and he never had an occasion to put someone in the chair. Hill did three in one day. But [Boehrer] told you the restraint chair is great for jails, they help keep the jail peaceful. No doubt it would be very peaceful if you strap in all 1,600 detainees. This is not a trial about whether the restraint chair is a useful tool—as long as it’s [used] within the law.”
“How about Elizabeth Smith? She may have been involved in putting someone in the restraint chair once or twice. She sees Victor Hill once or twice a month. So I’m not sure why she’s here….Even though Nurse Candace Blythe told us she checks them when they go in and checks then when they come out. [Smith] said she never had a problem. I guess she forgot about the [Desmond] Bailey report. A patient record from the restraint chair per security staff. ‘Blisters noted to both left and right wrists, and some open and bleeding.'”
According to Gray, the defense “suggested Bailey hurt himself in the three hours he was in [Eugene] Peterkin’s back seat. Does Peterkin strike you as the sort of person to let someone sit bleeding for three hours and do nothing about it?”
Gray reminded the jury of Hill’s testimony.
“Yes, he admits ordering six people into restraint chairs. On redirect, he said, ‘It was literally news to me. Until you brought this case, I had no idea anyone was hurt.'”
Gray pointed to a photo of the large yellow warning label on the back of a restraint chair. “While this label on the chair says, “could cause injury or death.” But it was a surprise to him that it could cause pain.
“He told you the chair was more passive than putting someone in a cell and locking the door…like Glenn Howell. ‘We’re gonna do Glenn Howell a favor and pull him out and make it more passive while we strap him down for four hours.’
Gray also noted that, of the seven detainees Hill ordered into restraint chairs, only three were on video, and “not because the sheriff’s office followed policy. One, the FBI grabbed. One, because a deputy was concerned about it. One, because [Hill] was so proud of it, he filmed it and sent it to his girlfriend.”
Gray showed the video a deputy secretly shot of Hill lecturing Arnold and froze it one second before Hill ordered Arnold into the chair. He noted that Arnold had not been engaging in behavior that posed a threat to himself or others, but that Hill ordered him into the chair anyway “because he thinks that’s his right. That’s not his right.” Similarly, Gray said, jail security video seized by the FBI showed Howell, who had cursed out Hill during their phone exchange, had been sitting in a cell when Hill called him out and had him put into the chair. Gray noted that the 17-year-old was “not even at the jail yet and was already ordered into the chair….because somehow, [Hill] believes he has that right. But he doesn’t have that right.”
And in the cases of Thomas and Bailey, despite the fact that Hill testified that cameras were on at the jail 24/7, Gray said there was no evidence of them being “‘very, very aggressive’ on the inside. But there’s no video and every officer after that came in and said ‘no, they weren’t violent’….Isn’t that convenient? The ones we don’t have video for in the jail were violent.”
Gray told the jurors, “Last night, I was thinking about one little thing that captured it all…One thing [Hill] said really kept running through my mind about [the 17-year-old]. And it wasn’t what he told us about tearing up his mom’s house, and it wasn’t about a pre-attack indicator, it wasn’t even his apology, or sort-of apology, that ‘I really regret he went in the chair twice,’ even though he gave the order twice. It was how proud he was…to see [the teen] had turned out so well. That he was in high school doing well. And then [Hill] said, ‘I’d like to think I had something to do with that.’ He wasn’t proud of [the teen]. He was proud of himself for what he did to [the teen]. And I can’t get that out of my mind.”
Gray also noted Hill’s comment that the teen’s mother “who’s a female. is not capable of raising her own son, and called that comment “sexist.”
It doesn’t matter what I think, what any of the victims said. It only matters what you think. I’m going to ask you this last time to take the facts and apply the law. Use your common sense to apply the law to this fact: [The teen] said ‘ I was really scared and it really felt like torture because I did nothing wrong.’ I’m really confident you will reach the right decision.”
The government rested its case.
Goldberg immediately objected and asked Ross to declare a mistrial because Gray had referred to a Jonesboro Police officer involved in Harper’s arrest as Hill’s “girlfriend.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Hobson said, “I asked the defendant [Hill] on cross whether she was a friend; he said yes, and she’s a woman. An FBI agent testified they had a personal relationship.” Ross denied the mistrial request.
Defense Attorney Drew Findling started with a joke: “I am not, ladies, wearing mascara. I just haven’t slept in two weeks.”
“The federal government through the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are talking about a duly-elected sheriff in our state and saying, and I quote, ‘Not while he’s in charge.'”
Findling spoke of Hill as the embodiment of a law enforcement “trinity”: chief law enforcement officer of the county, head of the jail, and the person in charge of keeping the county safe: “For ten consecutive years, over 3,600 days, he has done that and not in the course of this trial have we heard about that trinity, that past, that the Clayton County Jail and courts are safe and secure…because of the elected sheriff who has served over 5,000 days in Clayton County.”
“He has dedicated himself as best he can from keeping firearms from convited felons,” Findling told the jury. “He keeps drugs out of—that’s right—his county, where he represents 300,000 souls.”
Admitting that the jail is “a potentially toxic environment,” Findling suggested that “the federal prison could use Sheriff Hill, since it’s been exposed by Congress as being full of rats and filth. For 5,000 days, Sheriff Hill has been the chief jailer to make sire that everybody is safe in that jail: civilian employees, corrections officers who don’t even have arrest powers…he alone bears that responsibility. Being a sheriff in Georgia is unique. You don’t just check in and check out.”
Findling noted that the sheriff’s position is also unique because it is elected, not appointed. “I find it just fascinating that we’re just shy of Election Day. [Hill was] chosen by the people of that county, and now you will judge him—not you, the U.S. government, will judge this man…based on, in my estimation, an aggregate of about 30 minutes, seven days out of over 5,000, that occurred during the strangest period of our lives—the first 60 to 90 days of COVID.”
Findling also told the jury that the “government has the burden of proving evidence to you. All the elements and in like fashion, the sheriff gets up and testifies. Her Honor told you he didn’t have to—he has that Constitutional right—he did not hide behind that Fifth Amendment.”
On the issue of use of force, Findling emphasized part of the definition: “‘Use of force is objectively unreasonable when it is not rationally related to a legitimate nonpunitive governmental purpose, or where it appears excessive in relation to that purpose.’ The government brought no one to say that use of a restraint chair is a use of force. Handcuffs and shackles are not [a use of force] unless you pick them up and use them to hit somebody. In 2014, Sheriff Hill called it a use of force….Did they bring you an expert witness? I see one, two, three FBI witnesses that have been interviewing people. I and Ms. Goldberg made sure to educate you about the FBI’s involvement. We have 159 counties and 158 other sheriffs. I have no doubt they worked the phone and crisscrossed the state finding that fellow sheriff to come in here and say it was illegal.”
The restraint chairs, Findling said, “are made by American corporations” and are shown off at law enforcement trade shows. “No doubt they [the FBI] crisscrossed the state and found no one to come in and tell them otherwise….Now, how about this? How about just an expert witness? CNN, MSNBC, Fox—they have use of force experts. They’re blabbing, they’re saying their opinions, but they’re experts. We’ve got great universities—John Jay in New York. They’re the United States of America, they’ve got some juicy expert. Nobody.”
He continued, “Okay, maybe this would be an issue…whether it’s punitive or non-punitive, it’s a restraint chair. Okay, here comes the chair. We never saw one. They had a black one and a gray one. Better yet, where’s the corporate person? ‘We certainly don’t want our chairs at the Acme Corporation to be used for punitive purposes! No, not at all!’ You get a PowerPoint with a little yellow sticker like a child’s toy. Reasonable doubt. You’ve gotta go back there and ask, ‘Why didn’t they?'”
He also questioned why the government did not bring in a trainer to speak about the chair’s proper use, then turned to the question of whether the government had presented any evidence that Hill had acted willfully—meaning “‘voluntarily, with the intent to do something the law forbids, that is, with the bad purpose to disobey or disregard the law.’
“We sit in the Southeastern U.S. where Jim Crow law enforcement chained and tortured human beings,” Findling said. “That doesn’t escape me. This strong-willed and strong Black man that leads his community. Along 19/41, Jonesboro is the home of the Gone With the Wind museum. What evidence, what evidence, where is the smoking gun that he says, ‘I don’t care that the law says, we’re going to get this chair and start messing with folks’?”….He’s not hiding behind the Fifth Amendment. He boldly got up there and testified. There weren’t any questions to him as a law enforcement officer or his understanding about violations of the Constitution. Remember, he is the elected sheriff that runs a county jail. If there’s one thing that always concerns him, it’s the Eighth Amendment. When we think about slavery and involuntary servitude, in this day and in this time, he must live by the Eighth Amendment. They [detainees] may have to put their nose against the wall. They may have to live in a temporary paramilitary environment. But it better be clean as a whistle. They are entitled to cleanliness. They are entitled to hygiene.”
Findling then attacked the credibility of one witness, implying that Harper posed a threat to the 17-year-old when both were strapped into chairs and wheeled into the same observation room : “Joseph Harper, as soon as he gets out of the jail, bashes his daddy’s brains in. And yes, 17-year-olds have Eighth Amendment protections because that would be cruel and unusual punishment under his watch.”
According to Findling, “There’s this hint out there that there’s a conspiracy with the nurses and deputies. Nobody comes in and testifies to that.”
He credited Hill with writing the restraint chair policy: “This was his choice. There’s no law that says he has to come up with this policy….the government is going to cross-examine and analyze this policy, when he is so organized and fastidious as a leader. The U.S. Government and then the Justice Department are going to have the audacity to change this sheriff,” rather than use his restraint chair policy.
“This is what Sheriff Hill said: ‘the totality of the circumstances.’ Just because the government asks the same questions over and over robotically, they don’t work at a jail. ‘I wanted to be proactive.’ The government asks, over and over again, ‘Did he hurt anybody?'” But, he said, if somebody is “bashed over the head or a nurse is dragged into a bathroom and raped, that’s the only time [the chair] is good and useful.” The need for a restraint chair, Findling said, “begins at the onset. That begins at the commencement of whatever brings somebody there.”
Findling also told the jury they had heard “not one bit of medical testimony” about the men’s injuries. “Did the government bring in a doctor? The only thing that they did was have folks come in with what I consider to be selfies. They didn’t have any of these one, two, three FBI agents come in” and testify to having taken photos. “The government could have asked Mr. Peterkin, Mr. Howell…any of them to roll up their sleeves, come off the bench for demonstration purposes.”
He also downplayed the men urinating on themselves while they were strapped in the chair. “I’m not talking about having to go potty,” Findling said. “I’ve had to go potty through half this trial.” He pointed to a still frame from Hill’s video of Harper and the 17-year-old, which showed what appeared to be a puddle of urine on the floor around Harper’s chair, a puddle from which the 17-year-old testified he had managed to inch away by using his toes to scoot the chair a little at a time. Harper’s underwear, Findling pointed out, “was dry as a sheet of looseleaf paper.”
Findling said of several former CCSO employees who had testified, “Over 30 officers were dismissed on the overtime issue. I think it was called an overtime scandal. Is that punitive?” Instead, Findling said, the overtime firings showed Hill was fiscally prudent. “Major Peterkin, when he was asked if he was dismissed because of the overtime scandal. he looked at me like he had just seen a ghost.”
As for Hannah James, “Really? Hannah James who said she was angry because she was demoted and on this side now was in Fugitive—Fugitive, where she made the video, she was in her happy place. You got demoted with other people from Fugitive and sheriff said no. Fugitive is kind of unique because you always have to be ready to go hunting….What a witness. The whole Glenn Howell thing. Sniper squad? I detest racism and I detest him. Hannah James was so upset, she helped strap him in.”
Raheim Peterkin had said that jail “was not a good place for me…not with my attitude,” according to Findling. “This guy barricades himself for four hours and lies still to this day, perjures himself on the stand—’I didn’t have a gun. I didn’t put it in the baby hamper. The government is so concerned about his civil rights but they don’t advise him of the Fifth? Dude is perjuring himself on the stand. He’s looking at 70 years and you’re letting me cross-examine him.”
On Bailey, Findling said, “The government’s cross-examination is the only way you’re going to find out he evaded the police at a high rate of speed. All they gotta do is not possess firearms, Peterkin and him. You had to find out through Ms. Goldberg’s questions that he had to be dragged through the window.
“Look, I’m a criminal defense attorney and I’m defending the sheriff. and when this is done, we’re gonna have cases against each other, but I’m proud to represent him,” Findling said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Hobson reiterated Hill’s responses when Arnold had asked for his civil rights: “That Victor Hill is the real Victor Hill, the unrehearsed Victor Hill.”
Hobson said that innocent people could wind up in Hill’s chair for something “as not paying attention or walking in circles.” For those who dared to cross Hill, “That was personal, that was punishment, that was revenge, and that was illegal.”