Ex-Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill sentenced to 18 months in federal prison

A security guard tries to block the view of ex-Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill as he enters the Richard B. Russell Federal building for his prison sentence hearing Tuesday. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A security guard tries to block the view of ex-Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill as he enters the Richard B. Russell Federal building for his prison sentence hearing Tuesday. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Tuesday, five months after he was convicted of violating the civil rights of detainees in a facility he once called “Georgia’s toughest para-military jail.”

Hill, whose reputation as a tough-as-nails lawman became so widely known that the creators of Grand Theft Auto video game franchise added a squad car in his name, will also be required to serve six years of probation upon release and will not be permitted to participant in any paid law enforcement activities.

He must also complete 100 hours of community service after he leaves prison.

U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross handed down the sentence after both prosecutors and Hill’s attorneys made their cases for an appropriate punishment in the roughly 90-minute hearing.

“My sincerest prayer for you is that you would sit down for a moment and think about everything,” Ross said, noting that part of Hill’s issue is arrogance.

The sentence closes a chapter on Hill, who continues to enjoy popularity in Clayton County despite his conviction. Many Clayton residents — several of whom sent letters to Ross pleading for leniency — say he is the best sheriff the county has had and decried the federal investigation into him.

Detractors, however, portray him as a wanna-be dictator whose antics have deterred economic development in the county for two decades. To them, Hill’s sentencing is the breath of fresh air that has been years in the making.

Federal authorities indicted Hill in April 2021 for violating the civil rights of detainees at the jail by strapping them into restraint chairs as punishment. Jailers are allowed to use the restraint devices only if a detainee may cause harm to themselves or others.

Prosecutors had sought up to 46 months in jail for the controversial ex-lawman, but Ross said she was reducing the recommended sentence partly because of the community letters she received and partly because there is little legal precedent to guide her on the applicable incarceration.

Hill, speaking in his own defense, told the judge Tuesday that accusations during the trial that he believes Clayton County is his to rule and that he told jail staff that his was the voice of god, is an inaccurate portrayal of who he is. If he appeared to some as possessive of the county, his office and the jail, it’s because he cared.

“It’s because I take ownership of everything that happens in this county,” he said.

A standing-room only crowd squeezed into the small courtroom to hear Hill’s sentence, including those who said they were victims of the former sheriff and those who vouched for his character.

Cleveland Jackson, who alleged that Hill ordered deputies to put him into a restraint chair when he was held at the Clayton County jail in 2020, said the sentence was not a complete win for those who accused Hill of abuse. But, he said, it is justice.

Jackson was not among the six detainees included in the charges against Hill.

“Some justice is better than no justice,” said Jackson, who was a fixture of the courtroom every day during Hill’s October trial. “You got some level of accountability.”

Cleveland Jackson talks to the media at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building after Hill's prison sentence hearing Tuesday, Mar. 14, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Roderick Didon, however, hailed Hill as a hero.

One of four citizens to speak on Hill’s behalf during the sentencing, he told Ross that Hill helped him get off drugs after he was locked in the Clayton County jail. The two formed a bond and Hill remained in contact with him after he was freed, encouraging him to remain clean. The support worked.

“In 2018 I got the father I never had,” Didon told Ross. “I hope I can keep him.”

Drew Findling, Hill’s attorney, said he plans to appeal the sentencing in the coming weeks. Part of his argument, he said, is that the federal government could have told Hill that he was using the restraint chair improperly under a consent decree and given him time to change or suspend his methods.

Instead they went for Hill, the “shiny object” with high name recognition and wide community support, Findling said

“The fact that he has been singled out, to us, still remains somewhat of a disgrace,” he said.

Findling also said that while his team had hoped for a probation sentence with no prison time, he was pleased Ross did not support the prosecutors recommendations. He said he also hopes the Bureau of Prisons will consider imprisoning Hill at a minimum security facility because his law enforcement background could make him a target of violence.

In a news release, prosecutors from the U.S Attorneys Office said that Hill rejected a basic constitutional tenet — that even a sheriff is forbidden from using unreasonable force.

Victor Hill listens to his defense attorney Drew Finley make his plea statement for leniency Tuesday, March 15, 2023.  (Lauren Lacy for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Lauren Lacy for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Lauren Lacy for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The evidence was clear in this case, there was absolutely no justification for Hill to order pretrial detainees to be strapped into restraint chairs for hours on end,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Buchanan said. “These men suffered painful injuries. Without question, his actions not only hurt the victims but eroded the public’s trust in law enforcement.”

Keri Farley, special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta, said: “We hope this sentence brings some closure to the victims of civil rights violations. This sentencing should send a strong message to any law enforcement officer who wants to follow their own version of the law. Badges and guns don’t come with the authority to ignore the Constitution. They come with the responsibility to protect it.”