Two detainees testify in Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill’s federal trial

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Two men told a federal jury Tuesday that they were strapped to Clayton County jail restraint chairs for so long that they urinated on themselves.

Joseph Harper and Walter Thomas, who were detainees in the south metro Atlanta facility on separate occasions, offered their sworn testimony in the trial of Sheriff Victor Hill, who stands accused of violating the civil rights of detainees by using the chairs as a form of punishment.

Harper and Thomas both said they were not offered bathroom breaks while confined to the devices, even though they sat in them for more than four hours.

“I actually was crying,” Thomas testified of his May 2020 experience at the jail. “I was scared, nervous. Just all over the place.”

When federal prosecutor Brett Hobson asked Thomas if he wet himself during this confinement, he said: “About three or four times.”

Hill is standing trial in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on allegations he used the chairs improperly against seven detainees. Use of the chairs are lawful only when jailers are attempting to protect a prisoner from harming themselves or others.

Hill has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Harper told the jury the chair was cramped and painful. He was handcuffed behind his back, bound by a strap at the waist and held still by straps around his upper arms. In a video presented during the trial, a mask is on his face to keep him from spitting at jail staff.

“It felt horrible,” Harper told the jury. “I had to use the bathroom on myself twice. I couldn’t hold it.”

Drew Findling, an attorney for Hill, focused his questions more on the activities that got the men arrested instead their experiences in the chair.

Thomas was arrested after being pulled over for speeding, with the Georgia State Trooper finding a controlled substance and a small amount of marijuana in the vehicle after smelling the drug in the air. The Miami native also was driving on a suspended Florida license.

Harper was arrested in April 2020 after threatening his sister because she would not cook him eggs and later for eluding police after leaving the hospital, where authorities had taken him after he faked falling unconscious. Harper also is serving a 15-year aggravated battery and false imprisonment charge for hitting his father with hammer.

Findling pressed both men on inconsistencies in statements to the FBI and other authorities and what they told the court on Tuesday. For instance, Harper pretended to be unconscious twice when he was confronted by Jonesboro Police who were trying to arrest him, but admitted in court that he was faking. He later told the FBI he had been swung into a railing and that was why he fell unconscious, but that was also a lie, Findling said.

Despite the lies, Findling said the FBI has never charged him for telling them untruths, a federal offense.

Findling also challenged Thomas on whether Trooper Antonio Gonzalez, who testified during Tuesday’s proceedings, had told Thomas how fast he was going or if the trooper had been rude and uncooperative, as Thomas claimed to the FBI.

“He was not rude,” Findling said. “(He) was not cutting you off. He was polite to you.”

Thomas pushed back, saying the trooper was not rude but he also was not totally forthcoming.

Findling continued to ask Thomas why he did not tell the FBI during previous interviews about his behavior with Gonzalez, in which he told the trooper that he was going to file a lawsuit because the arrest was not valid.

Thomas told Findling that his questions about his arrest and behavior with Gonzalez before arriving at the Clayton County Jail was not relevant to why he was previously interviewed or why he was eventually ordered into a restraint chair by Sheriff Hill.

“You not really making sense right now,” Thomas told Findling while being cross examined.