Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill’s conviction in federal court Wednesday on charges he violated the civil rights of six jail detainees is not the end of his legal problems.
The controversial lawman, who for years promoted his tough-on-crime persona by claiming he ran a “para-military jail,” also faces several civil lawsuits in federal court, filed by detainees who allege he used the restraint chairs as punishment against them.
Two of the detainees who have filed lawsuits were named in the Justice Department’s indictment of Hill.
Hill also faces lawsuits from detainees claiming that the jail was inattentive to medical needs, that members of the sheriff’s Scorpion Response Team punched a detainee repeatedly in the ribs, face and head, and that a mother lost her child because she was refused care when she went into labor.
Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University associate law professor, said Hill’s criminal conviction sharply raises the chances of detainees winning their civil lawsuits. She added that Hill could receive a minimum sentence of two to five years, or as much as 15 years, depending on the sentencing guidelines used. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross, who oversaw the case, will make the final sentencing decision.
“The standard of proof in a civil trial is much lower than the standard of proof in a criminal trial, so he’s basically ... been found liable for whatever harm came to them by putting them in a restraining chair,” she said. “It won’t have any impact, though, on potential damages.”
A federal jury found Hill guilty of putting six detainees in a restraint chairs in 2020 and 2021 as punishment, including a 17-year-old who had trashed his own home after becoming angry with his mother over wi-fi while playing video games. The jury found Hill not guilty on a seventh charge.
Hill remains free on bond and cannot have contact with any of the detainees or witnesses. He can’t access a firearm. Sentencing is expected in the coming months, U.S Attorney Ryan Buchanan said Wednesday, though he did not provide an exact date.
Drew Finding, Hill’s attorney, said he plans to appeal the conviction.
“The community continues to reach out to us through and during the trial about a person that had made them feel safe and secure in their homes in Clayton County,” Findling said of the sheriff.
Part of Hill’s appeal could center on pressure the defense may have felt Ross put on one juror, who was brought into the court room during deliberations, to defend his level of cooperation after the jury forewoman expressed the panel’s concerns about his mental acuity and listening skills. The juror was thought to favor Hill because he said the sheriff and president were “above the law,” according to the jury forewoman.
Ross sent jurors back for more deliberations after two such complaints, to avoid a mistrial.
Amy Weil, the longtime head of the Justice Department’s Atlanta Appeals Division, said the judge’s decision to have the jury continue deliberations was perfectly legitimate, as long as it was not coercive.
“The judge wants to make sure that everything can be done during deliberations short of undue pressure on the jury so you can avoid a mistrial,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office will determine next steps in providing Clayton County with a sheriff.
Kemp suspended Hill from office in June 2021 until the outcome of his federal case. Roland Boehrer, the sheriff’s office’s chief deputy, has been filling in for Hill.
”The governor’s ability to act following this verdict is dependent on the construct of local law,” Kemp’s office said in a statement. “As such, the governor’s legal team is in the process of reviewing relevant statutes to determine what steps can be taken and the necessary protocol for those steps. Once a determination has been made, it will be shared with community stakeholders and the public.”
Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said there is no local law governing a replacement for the sheriff since it’s an elected position. Short of the governor removing Hill from office, he remains sheriff in name until a special election can be held, possibly as early as March, Turner said.
“The sheriff right now has not been removed or terminated by the governor and from my understanding (the governor) is the only one that can do it,” he said.
Hill also faces having his law enforcement certification rescinded. Chris Harvey, deputy executive director of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, said Friday that the group will investigate Hill’s conviction and hopes to present its findings at the group’s December meeting.
“That’s pretty standard procedure when someone has been convicted of a felony,” Harvey said.
When asked if Hill’s planned appeal will play a role in their decision, Harvey said it will not.
“If something were reversed in the future, reconsideration could always be brought back in front of the council,” Harvey said. “We know that appeals can take years in some cases.”
Greg Bluestein contributed to this story