Jury finds Sheriff Victor Hill guilty on 6 of 7 counts
A federal jury has found Sheriff Victor Hill guilty on six of seven counts of depriving pretrial detainees’ rights under color of law. No sentencing date had been set as of press time.
The jury also found Hill inflicted bodily injury or pain in each of the six guilty counts:
- Count One (Raheem Peterkin): Guilty, plus bodily injury/pain
- Count Two (Desmond Bailey): Guilty, plus bodily injury/pain
- Count Three (Joseph Arnold): Guilty, plus bodily injury/pain
- Count Four (17-year-old): Guilty, plus bodily injury/pain
- Count Five (Joseph Harper): Not guilty
- Count Six (Glenn Howell): Guilty, plus bodily injury/pain
- Count Seven (Walter Thomas): Guilty, plus bodily injury/pain
Hill stared straight ahead when the verdict was read. Defense attorney Drew Findling asked that the jury be polled, which means the judge asked each member to stand up and state whether the jury’s unanimous verdict was their verdict. All answered that it was.
At issue in the case was whether Hill had violated the civil rights of people who had been charged with crimes but not yet appeared in court, been tried, or been sentenced.
Anyone can be accused of a crime and arrested if a judge has issued a warrant based on “probable cause.” However, “probable cause” is not proof that someone has committed a crime. It is up to a jury to decide whether or not the evidence and testimony in a trial proves beyond a reasonable doubt that a person who is charged with a crime is actually guilty.
Before then, no police officer, sheriff, deputy, or corrections officer can punish someone awaiting their day in court. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The idea of “due process” means that law enforcement officers cannot pick up people off the street and punish them for any reason. It means that any person accused of a crime gets to go before a jury of their peers, question in open court whoever has accused them of a crime, and demand that the government prove whether they are guilty. Pretrial detainees also are entitled to “adequate food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care, and personal safety.”
Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that a law enforcement officer can punish a pretrial detainee, no matter how annoying, insulting, or suspect that person may be.
Hill’s team argued that Hill has used the restraint chairs to “maintain order” in the Clayton County Jail. Hill himself testified that he decided whether to place a pretrial detainee in the restraint chair based on “pre-attack indicators” or PAIs. These include things like someone clenching their jaw or raising their voice.
But an indicator is not a guarantee that someone will become violent. The prosecution argued that, in all seven of the incidents brought before the jury, none of the pretrial detainees exhibited any violent or destructive action while in custody—and the restraint chair was only to be used in cases where the pretrial detainee posed a danger to themselves, others, or to property.
Landscaper Glenn Howell got into a dispute over landscaping he was doing for a CCSO deputy. Howell tried to get Hill to make the deputy pay for the work. Their conversation escalated. Hill told Howell to stop calling him and threatened him with a harassing communications charge. Howell replied to ask whether Hill was who he said he was. At one point, Howell told Hill to “go f___ yourself.”
Authoritarian governments often use the idea of “pre-crime” to arrest people who criticize the government. In Cuba, “pre-criminal social dangerousness” means that, if the police think you might possibly pose a threat to the government in the future, even just for insulting a government official, you can be monitored, followed, arrested, sent for psychological evaluation, and “reeducated” for political reasons. In the United States, the government cannot do that because of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The one instance where the jury found Hill not guilty involved Joseph Harper, who was arrested in a domestic dispute with his sister. Harper admitted to faking unconsciousness. He was taken to a hospital, where he ripped an IV out of his arm and escaped. Jonesboro Police later arrested him at his grandmother’s house, where he again faked unconsciousness, which forced several officers to pick him up and put him in the back of a police cruiser. At the jail, Harper continued to play possum, even as officers put a spit mask over his face and maneuvered him into a restraint chair. Harper told jurors the chair was painful and that he urinated on himself twice. The 17-year-old detainee, who had been placed in another chair in the same room with Harper, previously testified that he had used his toes to inch himself away from Harper’s urine. A video Hill had shot to send to one of the Jonesboro officers who had arrested Harper showed a puddle on the floor. Hill also had texted the officer, who the prosecution described as Hill’s “girlfriend,” about his plans to “meet” Harper at the jail and the “trouble” Harper had caused her.
Hill’s defense team was somber when they exited the courthouse.
“So I’m gonna be short and to the point,” attorney Drew Findling told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “Obviously, this has been a long process, and right now, my thoughts are with Sheriff Victor Hill. As I’ve said before, the community continues to reach out to us through and during this trial, about a person that had them feeling safe and secure in their homes in Clayton County. But nevertheless, this is where we are, so let me give you my thoughts about this. And that is, we tried this case over the course of a couple of weeks. Many of you have been with us during the last four days. This has been unprecedented in this district. We have seen four days of a deadlocked jury. We have seen four days where we have had a lens into the jury deliberation. We have seen four days of actual jurors—not only a foreperson, but a juror—being singled out and brought out and questioned, and for his personal thoughts, his personal observations, to be made public. I have never seen this happen. We have never seen this happen. I can only tell you, by looking at cases similar to this throughout the United States, when a lens has been made available inside of a jury room when it has gone public, the conversations, and they were shared, and someone has been singled out that was one of the deliberating jurors, those cases have not survived. Those cases have not survived the appellate process, and you could rest assured that this case on behalf of Sheriff Victor Hill will be appealed, and I can imagine, and we can collectively imagine, like those other cases throughout the United States, and even in the Eleventh Circuit, the case will be reversed.”
Findling spoke with the jurors after the verdict: “Nice conversation of good, decent citizens that were doing their job and we’re very, very appreciative of them for a very long and lengthy process. They all seem like fine citizens.”
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Ryan Buchanan, surrounded by Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Hobson and FBI special agents from the Atlanta Division who had worked the case, told reporters, “Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill has been convicted by a federal jury of six counts of civil rights charges for ordering his employees to use excessive force against six pretrial detainees at the Clayton County Jail from 2019 to 2020. The evidence, witness testimony, the trial. show that Hill ordered his employees to strap the detainees, without any legal justification, into a restraint chair, and to keep them there for hours in violation of their Constitutional rights. Witnesses testified that they sat in those chairs for hours, that many of them urinated on themselves, and suffered injury. Hill deprived these detainees of their Constitutional, lawful rights because the use of this force was unreasonable and it amounted to punishment. No person, whether a member of law enforcement or an elected official, or otherwise, has the right, or can assume the power, to violate the Constitutional rights of the citizens in their care. Mr. Hill will be sentenced in the upcoming months and we’ll have more to say at that time.”
What’s next for Victor Hill?
Hill’s charge, deprivation of rights under color of law, can carry any number of years, a life sentence, or a death sentence under federal statute. However, it is likely that after sentencing guidelines are considered and various factors weighed, Judge Eleanor Ross will sentence Hill to some number of years in federal prison for his crimes. Hill’s attorneys will file an appeal once the sentence is imposed.
Hill was suspended from his duties by Gov. Brian Kemp, on the recommendation of a two-sheriff review panel, pending either the outcome of the case or the end of Hill’s term in office. What’s not clear in state law, according to several sources, is when the case is considered to be complete: now, or pending the outcome of any appeals process.
Chief Deputy Roland Boehrer, by law, would serve as acting sheriff until a special election is held. Whoever won the special election would finish out Hill’s remaining term. Then, a regular election would be held for the next full term in the sheriff’s seat.
On Thursday morning, The Clayton Crescent e-mailed Boehrer, seeking details about when he would be sworn in as acting or interim sheriff (he already has been serving as interim sheriff, according to his e-mail signature). We will update with any response.
What exactly did Hill do?
The details of what Hill was charged with doing to each pretrial detainee, and a description of each incident that violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights, are in the superseding indictment. The detainees are identified by their initials in the indictment but were named in open court.
The Clayton Crescent has chosen not to name the 17-year-old, who did not go into juvenile court because he had just turned 17 about a week before his arrest, because he is finishing high school and was punished for longer than the other detainees by being forced to sit in the restraint chair twice in one night for more than double CCSO’s own four-hour policy and more than four times the manufacturer’s recommended two-hour limit. In Georgia, 17-year-olds are tried as adults. Supporters of an effort to raise the age have been asking the Georgia Legislature to change the law so that older teenagers can get more extensive rehabilitation and support that the juvenile justice system offers:
A juror’s understanding
Several times during jury deliberations, the foreperson and other jurors had sent notes to Ross, asking how to proceed when a juror did things like put his hands over his ears. Other allegations about the juror, including a claim that he had said “The sheriff and the President are above the law” were sent out to the judge for further instruction. Findling seized upon the notes and what he and his defense team, Marissa Goldberg and Lynsey Barron, said were clear indications that one juror was “being bullied” and that the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked.” Findling repeatedly called for a mistrial, and Ross repeatedly denied his motion.
Earlier Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Gray told Ross that the government had not found any additional case law addressing concerns the jury foreperson had raised Tuesday about Juror 6, who allegedly was either unwilling or unable to follow the law in reaching a verdict. When Ross had questioned Juror 6 separately, he had stated that he was engaging in deliberations and following the law and the judge’s instructions. Findling and Barron objected to the Allen charge, saying that the dispute between jurors was “clearly coercion” and an Allen charge, with its added weight coming from the judge, would add to the pressure. “If the jury is split and the judge keeps pressing, the minority will feel pressured to join the majority,” Findling said. “The judge and jury knew it was 11 to 1….’I know that one of you is holding out…you must stop being so stubborn.'” Findling said he understood the court’s reasoning that this Allen charge would be given to a new jury, but that it was “clearly aimed at the holdout.” Findling pointed to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that had mentioned the jury note questioning that juror’s “‘cognitive abilities’ and that he had been screamed at in the jury room.
“Your Honor, this has gotten out of control,” Findling said. “I don’t see how the verdict would stand public scrutiny.”
“Denied,” Ross said, and exited the courtroom at 9:38 a.m.
The jury sent out a note at 11:40 a.m., asking to go to lunch. By 1:23 p.m., Ross said she would give the jury an “Allen charge,” which is basically an ultimatum to work towards a decision, reminding the jurors that a great deal of effort from both sides had been put into the case. The jurors did not look happy as they exited the courtroom.
48 minutes later, the jury sent out another note, asking how to proceed if a juror said “the law has not taken into account special circumstances.”
Ross cited two cases, U.S. v. Augustin (661 f3 1105) and Abbell, as well as Rule 23(b), which is about excusing a juror for “just cause.” That means a juror who refuses to apply the law or to follow the court’s instructions can be kicked off a jury.
U.S. v. Augustin was a case that involved a domestic plot to blow up several FBI buildings. The plotters thought they had made an alliance with Al Qaida but they actually had been infiltrated by an FBI agent. After a trial that lasted about three months, the jury got the case. One juror was dismissed for illness; another was removed “after the district court determined that the juror was unwilling to follow the court’s instructions on the law.” The jury issued mixed convictions and acquittals for five defendants.
The government cited U.S. v. Brown (996 f3 1171), which requires two things: information from the juror in question, as well as “credible reports of misconduct corroborated by all other fellow jurors.”
In that case, a part-time tax preparer was convicted of 12 counts of prepping false tax returns. The appeals court ruled that the district court should not have allowed an IRS agent who had audited the returns from testifying because there was no evidence to back his testimony.
The defense pointed to Juror 6’s own statements denying the claims in the jury foreperson’s notes to the judge. “Assuming it’s the same juror,” Findling said, the juror had asked about three things:
- willful conduct (the juror “pointed to the jury instructions”)
- intent (“when he was talking to fellow jurors”)
- impeachment (“also a part of Your Honor’s instructions”)
“The fact that he has been cross-examined by jurors back there about yes or no answers,” Findling said, “he’s not a yes or no person. He pointed to the instructions. If it’s the same person, it would be unconscionable to bring him out here again.”
“Bring the foreperson out,” Ross said.
The foreperson stated that Juror 6 “does not agree with the law and stated the law does not take into account special circumstances” and that he would not follow it.
“At the end of the trial, you are not to tell me at any point what the numerical breakdown [of the vote] is,” Ross said. “Has there been more than one discussion about the need to follow the law?”
“All day,” the foreperson said.
“And that you must follow the law even if you do not agree with it?”
Ross asked, “The question was specifically asked, ‘Do you feel the law is unfair based on your opinion?'”
“And is that what you are basing your decisions on?”
“Does the juror understand?”
Ross asked for clarification: “Does he not understand, or does he understand but refuse to follow the law?”
“Well…” the foreperson said. There was a long pause.
“Tell you what, I’m not going to ask you that,” Ross said. “What’s the juror’s name?”
“Craig,” the foreperson said. Findling objected.
“Have him brought out,” Ross ordered.
At 2:38 p.m., Juror 6 came out and the court officer delivered another note to Ross, who prompted the juror to step out again while she dealt with the note.
“May I say—” Juror 6 began.
“No sir,” Ross said.
“I just wanted to tell you where it was from—”
“No sir, you may step back,” Ross ordered.
More to come.