Testimony begins in trial of Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill

Federal prosecutors said Thursday that they will show proof — through video and testimony of more than 30 witnesses — that Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill violated the civil rights of detainees of his jail by strapping them into restraint chairs for hours.

Opening statements of the trail began Thursday.

Prosecutors said Hill’s use of the chairs was excessive force meant to bully detainees into submission, not to calm them in cases of volatility or possible harm to themselves or others, as permitted under the law.

“A jailer cannot use punishment to assert their dominance or to settle a personal score,” federal prosecutor Brent Gray told the jury of 10 women and four men, which includes two alternates.

Defense attorney Marissa Goldberg said the charges are overblown.

The intake process — the moments when a detainee is first booked after an arrest — is arguably the most volatile period in jailing because emotions are high. The restraint chair is a preventative measure to ensure a detainee is still and that force is not needed.

“Disagreements over methods and policies shouldn’t lead to criminal charges,” Goldberg told jurors.

Hill, the controversial sheriff who has dubbed himself “The Crime Fighter” and often uses “Batman” as a symbol of his enforcement of law, is accused of illegally putting seven detainees in the chairs over a period of two years. Some of them allegedly spent as four hours in the chairs after they arrived at the jail.

Several of the men were in the devices so long that they allegedly urinated on themselves.

In one case, Hill sent a detainee to the chair twice: once after Hill got a call that the detainee had been arrested and then again after the lawman confronted him at the jail, Gray said. The detainee was 17 at the time.

Hill has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

After opening statements, prosecutors quickly moved to video evidence they think proves their case.

In the first video — one of three the federal government would introduce Thursday — Hill is seen in the facility’s intake center berating a man arrested for allegedly assaulting an elderly woman and a middle-aged woman at a local grocery store.

The man, Joseph Arnold, is one of the detainees named in the indictment. The video shows that he was first handcuffed after moving his hands as he tried to explain his actions, and then is strapped to a restraint chair. Hill is present during the incident.

Arnold is seeing complying without complaint or protest.

Leconte Jackson, a captain at the jail who was at the scene of Arnold being put in the restraint chair, told jurors Arnold should not have been handcuffed or restrained because he was complying. At that point, there was nothing he nor anyone else could do, he said.

“If the sheriff orders someone put in a restrain chair, who can take them out of the restrain chair?” Gray asked Jackson.

“The sheriff,” he said.

Goldberg suggested there was more to the story than the government was relaying. At the time of his arrest, Arnold was a fugitive who had to be apprehended by the sheriff’s office’s elite fugitive squad. Because of that, jail authorities did not know what to expect when he arrived.

“The allegation against Mr. Arnold was a violent one,” Goldberg said, reminding jurors of the assault allegations against him.

Goldberg also noted that sheriff’s office personnel were respectful when putting Arnold in the chair and that he did not complain of discomfort or other concerns in the video.

Hannah Jones, another former employee of the sheriff’s office, said she recorded the video of Arnold’s restraining because she also thought it was wrong.

“I just had a feeling he was going to be placed in the chair so I wanted to record,” she said. She added that she kept the video secret until she learned about the FBI’s investigation into Hill.

The government also showed a video of Butts County landscaper Glenn Howell, who was put in a restraint chair after turning himself in to the sheriff’s office on a charge of harassing communications. Howell had gotten into an argument with Hill after the sheriff called him about a billing dispute between the landscaper and Clayton County deputy.

The 50-minute video, which did not have audio, showed Howell quietly sitting at the intake center after turning himself in. At times he is handcuffed and at other times he is seen as talking to intake staff without the restraints as he awaits next steps in his detention.

Federal authorities said it was evidence that Howell was not a risk.

“At any point when you were there, did you see any reason for Mr. Howell to be put in a restraining chair,” Gray said.

“No,” Jackson said.