ATLANTA (AP) — An Atlanta-area sheriff stands accused of punishing detainees by having them strapped into a restraint chair for hours even though they posed no threat and obeyed instructions. Now a jury must decide whether he violated the men’s civil rights.
A federal grand jury in April 2021 indicted Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, saying he violated the civil rights of four people in his custody. Three more alleged victims were added in subsequent indictments. Prosecutors say placing the seven men in restraint chairs was unnecessary, was improperly used as punishment, and caused pain and bodily injury.
Jury selection is set to begin Wednesday and the trial is expected to last at least two weeks.
Hill calls himself “The Crime Fighter,” and uses Batman imagery on social media and in campaign ads. He has been a divisive figure — attracting both fans and critics — since he first became sheriff in 2005. This will be his second trial on criminal charges. The voters of Clayton County returned him to office in 2012 while he was under indictment, accused of using his office for personal gain — charges he ultimately beat.
Hill and his lawyers have said said his prosecution is baseless and politically motivated.
“We fervently maintain that throughout his tenure, Sheriff Hill has employed legal and accepted law enforcement techniques and has never exceeded his lawful authority,” defense attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg said in a statement. “(W)ith the commencement of the trial of this case, the process will begin of restoring him back to his constitutionally elected position as Sheriff of Clayton County.”
Gov. Brian Kemp in June 2021 suspended Hill pending the resolution of the charges.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. When Hill was first indicted, then-Acting U.S. Attorney Kurt Erskine said the sheriff’s alleged actions not only harmed the detainees but also eroded public trust in law enforcement.
Prosecutors say Hill approved a policy saying the restraint chair can be used for a violent or uncontrollable person to prevent injury or property damage if other techniques don’t work and that the chair “will never be authorized as a form of punishment.”
The most recent indictment details what prosecutors say happened when each man was brought to the Clayton County Jail in Jonesboro, a suburb south of Atlanta.
In April 2020, a deputy arrested a teenager accused of vandalizing his family home during an argument with his mother. The deputy texted Hill a photo of the teen in a patrol car.
“How old is he?” Hill texted, according to an indictment.
“17,” the deputy responded.
“Chair,” Hill responded.
Also that month, Hill called a man in another county who’d had a dispute with one of Hill’s deputies over payment for landscaping work. Hill confronted the landscaper by phone and text and then instructed a deputy the next day to take out a warrant for harassing communications, the indictment says. After instructing the man to turn himself in, Hill sent a fugitive squad to try to arrest the man on the misdemeanor charge, the indictment says.
The man hired a lawyer and turned himself in. He cooperated with jail staff, but then Hill arrived and ordered him placed in the restraint chair, the indictment says.
A man arrested in May 2020 on charges of speeding and driving with a suspended driver’s license was also strapped into the restraint chair on Hill’s orders. A sheriff’s office employee then put a hood over the man’s head and he was hit twice in the face, causing him to bleed, the indictment says.
Hill also ordered that the other four men be placed in the chair, some left so long they urinated in the chair, the indictment says. The alleged victims are expected to testify at trial.
Hill fired 27 deputies on his first day in office in 2005, and his tough-on-crime stance has included using a tank owned by the sheriff’s office during drug raids.
He lost a reelection bid in 2008 and was indicted in early 2012 on felony corruption charges stemming from his first term in office. As with the current charges, his defense team blamed attacks by political rivals. Even though he remained under indictment during the election later that year, he defeated the man who had beaten him four years earlier. A jury later acquitted him on all 27 charges.
Hill raised eyebrows again in May 2015 when he shot and injured a woman in a model home in Gwinnett County, north of Atlanta. He and the woman said the shooting was an accident that happened while they were practicing police tactics. Hill pleaded no contest to a reckless conduct charge in August 2016.
In a ruling on pretrial motions, U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross made it clear that she wants the trial starting this week to be narrowly focused on the current charges.
Prosecutors won’t be allowed to bring up evidence of other alleged uses of force at the jail or the general conditions there. They also can’t talk about past lawsuits against Hill or his suspension by the governor. They’re also barred from making arguments about alleged retaliation against jail employees and obstruction by Hill. His affinity for Batman is off limits, as well.
Hill’s attorneys can’t compare his prosecution to other cases of alleged misconduct by law enforcement officers. They also can’t mention his good acts or suggest that his suspension has negatively affected Clayton County. They further can’t talk about the detainees’ behavior except as it relates directly to the arrests related to their alleged mistreatment.