Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill, facing the possibility of prison and the end of his law enforcement career, walked out of his racketeering trial Thursday with his badge still hanging from his neck and the weight of 27 felony charges off his shoulders.
A Clayton jury cleared Hill of all charges dating back to his first term in office from 2004-2008. Prosecutors charged Hill with stealing from taxpayers by using his county issued credit card, county cars and the county gas pump to take a series of personal, romantic trips in 2008 to the Georgia mountains and the South Carolina coast.
Had Hill been convicted of a single charge, he would lost the office he reclaimed last year and the right to be a law enforcement officer.
When the verdict was announced, Hill was engulfed in a group hug by his four lawyers. As has been custom since he assumed office in January, he refused to speak to reporters. The sheriff, his attorneys said, didn’t want to “dignify this unjust prosecution.”
The case hinged on whether the jury would, as prosecutors urged, take a stand against public corruption and theft of taxpayer dollars or would they agree with Hill’s attorneys, who argued a he is entitled to vacation time and an always-on-the-clock sheriff should have access to county vehicles.
The jury foreman, 30-year-old Markeith Crabb, who said his occupation was “gangsta rapper,” said there was no evidence to support a guilty verdict on any of the counts.
“Not a lot of evidence was presented to find him guilty,” Crabb said.
Clayton District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson — who didn’t personally try the case to mitigate allegations that politics was behind it — declined to comment. But she just thanked the jurors for their efforts and Special Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon — the DA in Walton and Newton Counties — for the work in the case.
From the day the indictment was returned, Hill, a former legislator and homicide detective, insisted the prosecution was politically-motivated. Hill had announced he was running in 2012 for the office he lost to Kem Kimbrough in 2008 and it was soon after that, that Kimbrough assigned deputies to investigate his one-time and soon-to-be-again political opponent.
Just as Hill lost to Kimbrough in the 2008 Democratic primary runoff, Kimbrough lost to Hill in the primary runoff last year even though Hill, at that time, was charged with 37 felonies.
Steven Frey, another Hill attorney, said the sheriff was visiting with family and friends in the hours after the verdict was announced and he was anxious to get back to work.
Before the jury announced its decision, Judge Albert Collier issued a stern warning to spectators in the courtroom that he would not allow any cheering or crying. But as the foreman announced “not guilty” on the final count, many ran out of the courtroom and cheered when they got to the hall.
Throughout the trial, which began Aug. 5 with jury selection, Hill has had supporters in the courtroom and in the hallways, including former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, former Clayton Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and one-time state Sen. Frank Redding, who served time in federal prison.
Jonesboro resident Linda Smith was thrilled with the verdict and now “he’s back at work, enjoying what he enjoys doing which is fighting crime.”
Riverdale resident Sam Carr, however, was unhappy with the decision and said he felt Hill was treated differently than others in the criminal justice system.
“I think he was guilty of one (count),” Carr said. “If you thrown 28 bricks (the number of charges addressed in the trial) one will break.”
Prosecutors had charged Hill with racketeering, theft by taking, violating his oath of office, making false statements and influencing a witness. Before the jury began deliberating, however, Collier dismissed the influencing a witness charge because the prosecutors did not have the evidence to support it, the judge said.
The crux of the case against Hill was that the sheriff, in his first term in office, stole from Clayton County taxpayers when he took his county-issued cars on out-of-state vacations — all but one after he lost to Kimbrough — and used gas from the county pumps or bought it with his county issued credit cards.
He also was accused of theft because he had a sheriff’s office employee counted as on paid administrative or sick leave so she could travel with him, because he required his spokesman to work on his autobiography and 2008 campaign during county work hours and because he allowed a printer to give back to his spokesman some of the county payments for printing a newsletter.
The jury was made up of a white man, an Asian man, seven black men and three African American women. There was a mechanic, a bartender, a student, a postal clerk, a seamstress and three in the medical field. The foreman, who also worked in a barber shot in addition to the music industry, is 30 years old.
Pat Pullar, a Clayton County political consultant, would not say if she thought the prosecution of Hill was politically-motivated or not but acknowledged that voters didn’t care that there were criminal charges against him.
“Clayton County residents spoke when they re-elected him and certainly the jury concurred,” Pullar said.
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