ATLANTA (AP) — An Atlanta-area sheriff is accused of punishing inmates by strapping them into a restraining chair for hours even though they posed no threat and were following instructions. Now a jury must decide whether he violated 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 care. Three other alleged victims were added in later charges. Prosecutors say placing the seven men in restraint chairs was unnecessary, used improperly as punishment and causing pain and bodily harm.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Wednesday and the process is expected to take at least two weeks.
Billing himself as “The Crime Fighter,” Hill uses Batman imagery on social media and in campaign ads. Since he first became sheriff in 2005, he’s been a controversial figure, attracting both fans and critics. This will be his second trial on criminal charges. Clayton County voters brought him back to office in 2012 while facing indictment on charges of using his office for personal gain – charges he ultimately defeated.
Hill and his attorneys said his charges were baseless and politically motivated.
“We strongly assert that Sheriff Hill used legal and recognized law enforcement techniques throughout his tenure and never exceeded his lawful authority,” defense attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg said in a statement. “[With]the commencement of the trial in this case, the process will begin to restore him to his constitutionally elected position as Clayton County Sheriff.”
Governor Brian Kemp suspended Hill in June 2021 pending clarification of the charges.
The US Attorney’s Office declined to comment. When Hill was first charged, then-US Attorney Kurt Erskine said the sheriff’s alleged actions not only harmed inmates but also undermined public confidence in law enforcement.
According to prosecutors, Hill approved a policy stating that the restraint chair can be used on a violent or uncontrollable person to prevent injury or property damage when other techniques don’t work, and that the chair “will never be approved as a form of punishment.” .
The latest indictment describes what prosecutors say happened when each man was taken to the Clayton County Jail in Jonesboro, a suburb south of Atlanta.
In April 2020, an MP arrested a teenager accused of vandalizing his family’s home during an argument with his mother. The deputy sent Hill a photo of the teenager in a squad car.
“How old is he?” According to an indictment, Hill texted.
“17,” the deputy replied.
“Chair,” Hill replied.
Also that month, Hill called a man in another county who was having a dispute with one of Hill’s deputies over landscaping pay. Hill confronted the landscaper by phone and text message, then ordered a deputy the next day to issue a warrant for his arrest for communications harassment, the indictment said. After Hill ordered the man to turn himself in, he dispatched a fugitive group to try to arrest the man for the crime, the indictment said.
The man hired an attorney and turned himself in. He cooperated with prison staff, but then Hill came and ordered him to be put in the restraint chair, the indictment says.
A man arrested in May 2020 for speeding and driving with a suspended license was also strapped into the restraining chair on Hill’s orders. An employee from the sheriff’s office then pulled a hood over the man’s head and punched him twice in the face, causing bleeding, according to the indictment.
Hill also ordered the other four men to be seated in the chair, some staying so long they urinated on the chair, the indictment said. The alleged victims are expected to testify in court.
Hill fired 27 deputies on his first day in office in 2005, and his tough stance on crime included using a tank owned by the sheriff’s office in drug raids.
He lost re-election in 2008 and was charged in early 2012 with corruption crimes stemming from his first term. As with the current charges, his defense team blamed attacks by political rivals. Despite continuing to face charges during elections later that year, he defeated the man who had beaten him four years earlier. A jury later acquitted him of all 27 charges.
Hill raised eyebrows again in May 2015 when he shot and injured a woman at a show 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 did not plead a reckless behavior charge in August 2016.
In a ruling on pretrial motions, US District Judge Eleanor Ross made it clear that she wants the trial, which begins this week, to be closely based on the current charges.
Prosecutors may not present evidence of other alleged uses of violence in the prison or the general conditions there. Nor can they discuss previous lawsuits against Hill or his suspension from the governor. They are also barred from making arguments about alleged retaliation against prison employees and Hill’s obstruction. His affinity with Batman is also taboo.
Hill’s attorneys cannot compare his charges to other cases of alleged misconduct by law enforcement officials. Nor can they mention his good deeds or imply that his suspension negatively impacted Clayton County. They also cannot discuss the detainees’ behavior unless it directly relates to the arrests related to their alleged ill-treatment.
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