Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill found guilty in federal civil rights trial

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was found guilty in federal court Wednesday on six charges that he violated the civil rights of jail detainees by strapping them into restraint chairs as punishment.

The verdict was handed down late in the afternoon after the jury, which had been deadlocked for days, seemed to again be at an impasse after sending District Court Judge Eleanor Ross a note earlier in the afternoon that one juror was failing to follow instructions.

But the panel apparently worked through the difficulties and rendered a verdict at around 4:20 p.m.

Hill showed no emotion Wednesday as the verdict was read. He leaned over at one point to speak to one of his attorneys, but was otherwise still.

He was accused of strapping seven men into the restraint chairs — which are supposed to be used to calm combative detainees in cases where they could hurt themselves or others — as retaliation or revenge. But he claimed his actions were necessary because of the alleged crimes for which they were arrested, including attacking two women at a grocery store and pointing a gun at men in a car.

He was found not guilt on the seventh charge.

Once at the jail, the detainees were strapped to the chair for hours, including a 17-year-old who was confined to the device twice for a total of 10 hours. Several of the men urinated on themselves multiple times, despite pleas to jail staff that they needed to use the restroom.

“Hill deprived these detainees of their Constitutional lawful rights,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan Buchanan, who added that Hill will be sentenced in the coming months. “The use of force was unreasonable and amounted to punishment.

“No person, whether a member of law enforcement or an elected official or otherwise, has the right to assume the power to violate the Constitutional rights of citizens in their county.”

Hill’s defense attorney Drew Findling said he plans to appeal the conviction and called focus on the juror whose ability to follow instructions was questioned unprecedented.

“We have seen four days of ... a juror being singled out and brought out and questioned for his personal thoughts (and) his personal observations to be made public,” Findling said, adding that such actions in other similar cases have not survived the appellate process. “I have never seen this happen.”

Hill took the stand in his own defense the last day of the eight-day trial, telling the jury that he ran the Clayton County Jail like a military institution because of the need to maintain order. His defense attorneys repeatedly pointed out that jail personnel were outnumbered by those imprisoned, whose numbers could reach as many as 2,200.

But prosecutors said Hill unnecessarily strapped the men in the chairs. At the time of their intake, each was being cooperative and was not showing any signs that they would hurt themselves or others.

The conviction comes nine years after a Clayton County jury acquitted the controversial sheriff of 32 felony counts against him in state court, including racketeering, theft by taking, making false statements and violating his oath of office. That jury heard testimony for seven days and deliberated for just one.

Hill was convicted of violating the civil rights of Chyrshon Hollins, Joseph Arnold, Glen Howell, Desmond Bailey, Walter Thomas and Raheem Peterkin. The jury also found him guilty of causing physical pain and bodily injury to the six men.

He was found not guilty of violating the civil rights of Joseph Harper.

It was unclear how many years Hill could receive for the convictions.

Graham Carter, the juror whose ability to follow instructions was questioned, said he held Hill in great esteem and that he did not think the sheriff was a man of malicious intent.

“We do think that there were violations and that once there were violations, they needed to be addressed,” he said of his conclusions and those of his colleagues on the jury.