Prospective jurors called for the first day of jury selection in the racketeering trial of Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill first had to walk past about 15 people, including three legislators, carrying signs and wearing T-shirts with slogans in support of the defendant.
When Hill walked into the courtroom for the first time Monday, before the arrival of the perspective jurors into the room, Sheriff’s Office employees and spectators immediately snapped to attention — a requirement he has imposed on his employees — and sat only after Hill had taken his seat at the defense table.
He did not acknowledge the gesture and he maintained a stern expression throughout Monday’s proceedings.
But as soon as there was a break he was swarmed by supporters offering hugs, handshakes and back slaps.
Judge Albert Collier warned them against applauding or cheering. He also told them they could not sit in the courtroom if they were wearing t-shirts with slogans supporting one side or the other or any badges favoring anyone in the case.
Thus began the first day of the sheriff’s trial on 28 felony counts, including racketeering, theft by taking, violation of oath of office or influencing a witness.
Prosecutors say that during Hill’s first term in office he used county-issued cars and credit cards for personal trips, and had a subordinate counted as being on paid administrative leave or out sick so she could get a salary while she traveled with Hill. Some of the theft charges are that he required an employee to work on a book about the sheriff during county work hours.
After the first day of weeding through scores of Clayton County residents called to jury duty, 12 were deemed “qualified” to sit in judgement and four were excused, two of them because they did not speak English.
The goal is to find 30 people from among the 154 called who have no criminal past, who have no unbending opinions of the popular but controversial sheriff, who are open and capable of being fair and impartial. From that group 12 jurors and two alternates will be set to decide if Hill is guilty.
The first groups of prospective jurors were asked obvious questions.
Did they know any of the defense attorneys, prosecutors or the judge as well as the dozens of witnesses that could be called? Most knew of Hill but none of them knew anyone else connected to the trial.
Some said they had attended functions where Hill spoke.
Several had seen media reports of Hill’s criminal case or the controversies that marked Hill’s first four years as sheriff, before he was defeated for reelection in 2008 by Kem Kimbrough, who Hill defeated to regain the office in 2012.
But they all said they could be fair and impartial.
The prospective jurors also were asked seemingly unrelated questions.
Had any had fibroid tumors? Anyone ever stayed out of work because of illness? Anyone have strong moral beliefs disapproving of unmarried people traveling with each other.
The questions also alluded to a political motive the defense claims that led to the case against Hill
“How many of you agree with me that politics and the criminal justice system should never meld,” defense attorney Steven Frey asked, referencing the contention that Kimbrough started the investigation only because Hill had announced a run for sheriff in 2012.
All of the prospective jurors agreed the two should never mix.
Jury selection continues Tuesday.
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