Years after acquittal, Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill back on trial Wednesday

Nine years ago, Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill appeared before a jury in state court on 32 felony charges, including racketeering, theft by taking, making false statements and violating his oath of office.

After seven days of testimony, and just one day of deliberation, the Clayton County jury cleared him of all charges.

The controversial lawman will be back on trial again this week — and the stakes will be even higher.

Hill, who calls himself THE CRIME FIGHTER in capital letters and often incorporates Batman’s bat signal in his social media posts, will stand trial this time in federal court, where he is accused of violating the civil rights of jail detainees by strapping them in restraint chairs as a form of punishment.

So instead of local residents hearing the case against Hill, who is wildly popular in Clayton County, the jury pool will be made up of residents from all over the state.

Jury selection begins Wednesday for a trial that is expected to last two weeks.

“Let’s put it this way, home cooking is not a factor when the case is tried in federal court,” said Ron Carlson, Callaway, Chair of Law Emeritus at the University of Georgia’s law school. “Local loyalties are sort of diluted or washed out because the jury pool ... is much more expansive.”

Hill was indicted in April 2021 on four federal counts of violating the civil rights of detainees. Three additional counts were added later.

Drew Findling, the attorney representing Hill, said the sheriff has always “employed legal and acceptable law enforcement techniques.”

“In fact, Sheriff Hill has been nationally recognized for his effective standards of order and safety,” Findling said.

ExploreVictor Hill timeline

Hill was suspended from office in June 2021 by Gov. Brian Kemp, pending the outcome of his trial, The sheriff has since taken to social media posts, counting down the days until he says he will be cleared once again.

“9 more days before ALL of the facts are revealed to exonerate Sheriff Victor Hill so he can return to ‘defend those who cannot defend themselves’”! Hill wrote recently on Twitter.

Controversial sheriff

Hill has been a divisive figure from the first day he took office.

One of the sheriff’s first decisions upon taking office in January 2005 was to fire 27 sheriff’s office employees, and post snipers on the facility’s roof as the workers were escorted out of the building.

To Clayton residents, Hill is either a combative, wanna-be authoritarian who damages the county’s reputation because of bad press, or a no-nonsense lawman strikes fear into criminals and is present in the community.

Clayton resident Pat Pullar sees him as the latter. Pullar said several years ago two girls from a group home disappeared and Clayton police were unable to find them. Then she and others reached out to Hill, and he quickly tracked them down.

“It’s just the fact that we could call on him when things like that happened and know that he himself would get involved,” Pullar said.

In 2015, Hill was charged with reckless conduct after accidentally shooting a woman in the abdomen at a model home in Gwinnett County. Both Hill and the woman said it happened while they were practicing “police tactics.”

Hill pleaded no contest to the charge in 2016.

Two years later, Hill issued a warrant for the arrest of Gerrian Hawes, the wife of former Clayton County deputy Robert Hawes who had said he planned to run for sheriff against Hill. Robert Hawes said Hill and Gerrian Hawes got into a spat via email after the sheriff allegedly made unfounded allegations about the Hawes’ children.

Reached by phone last week, Gerrian Hawes said if Hill is convicted in the federal trial, her hope is that he will never hold office again.

“I don’t wish the man any harm,” she said of Hill. “I do hope he learns his lesson.”

Hill also hired former Atlanta city official Mitzi Bickers after federal investigators began investigating her for taking bribes years earlier, while an official at Atlanta City Hall.

Hill gave Bickers, a pastor, an entry level job in 2016 but quickly promoted her to chaplain and later head of the jail’s chaplain staff.

Bickers was convicted in March on nine counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion. She was Hill’s chief of staff at the time of the conviction.

Indictment: Chair used as punishment

Prosecutors have said at trial they will call about 35 witnesses, including the seven detainees and several former and current employees.

U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross said in a recent pre-trial conference that she planned to keep the proceedings tightly focused on whether the use of the restraint chairs violated the detainees’ civil rights, not whether Hill is a villain or a hero.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Drew Beal, a partner at the Buckley Beal law firm and expert in civil rights trials, said that’s the right call. Hill’s work in the community and how he runs the office aren’t relevant to the criminal accusations, Beal said.

“Here you are essentially looking at proving whether there was a pattern or practice of behavior that was a common or routine way of punishing people,” he said.

The indictment provides detailed examples of what prosecutors hope to prove.

In April 2020, Chryshon Hollins was arrested for allegedly vandalizing his home during an argument with his mother. The arresting officer took a picture of the youth, who had been apprehended without resistance and texted the photo to Hill.

After being told Hollins was 17 years old, Hill replied with: “Chair,” according to the indictment.

The sheriff also is accused of using restraints on a defendant identified as Glenn Howell after the man became entangled in a dispute over landscaping work he performed for a Clayton County deputy in Butts County.

The sheriff called the landscaper and told him to stop harassing his employee after the Howell sought payment. Hill later swore out an arrest warrant against Howell for “harassing communications.”

A day later, Hill allegedly sent a “fugitive squad armed with handguns and AR-15 rifles to Butts County in an attempt to arrest Howell on the misdemeanor arrest warrant, the indictment said.

The landscaper spent hours restrained in a chair after his arrest on Hill’s orders, according to the indictment.

In addition, detainee Raheem Peterkin alleged he was left restrained for so many continuous hours in 2019 that he eventually urinated on himself, the indictment said,

Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said this trial may have a bigger emotional impact on jurors than Hill’s 2013 case.

Accusing someone of violating his oath of office or theft can feel like an abstract argument, she said. But a person urinating in a chair in which they have been strapped for hours elicits a visceral reaction.

“Arguably that’s torture,” Morrison said.