The time has come to lay out the case for jurors to decide whether Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill illegally used his office for personal gain.
All along Hill, who faces 28 criminal charges, has maintained that he is innocent and that his indictment is politically motivated. Prosecutors say that when Hill served as sheriff between 2004 and 2008 he illegally used employees to work his campaign events, arranged kickbacks and used county-issued cars and credit cards for vacations.
Hill was defeated in 2008 by Kem Kimbrough, a deputy he once fired. The criminal charges emerged in 2011, but that didn’t stop Hill from defeating Kimbrough in the rematch last year.
Now begins the complicated and challenging process of finding 14 people who have not formed an opinion of the charismatic but controversial lawman — who won election with 76 percent of the vote. Only President Barack Obama, a pair of entrenched U.S. congressmen and a PSC commissioner got a higher percentage of Clayton County’s votes in a contested race that day.
Even so, opinions of Hill run to the extreme, said Bob Holmes, chairman emeritus of Clark Atlanta University’s Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy.
“You either like him or you hate him seems to be the way it cuts in terms of the electorate” in Clayton County, Holmes said.
Hill is charged with two counts of racketeering, 22 counts of theft by taking, two counts of making a false statement and one each of influencing a witness and violating oath by a public officer. He was initially charged with 37 felonies but Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier dismissed two racketeering and three theft charges last fall concerning his use of campaign funds. On Friday Collier dismissed four theft charges that were brought after the four-year statute of limitations had expired.
No one expects it to be easy finding 12 jurors and two alternates who haven’t formed opinions of Hill.
“It’s a very unique situation,” defense attorney Steven Frey said, predicting a lot of individual questioning of prospective jurors that will take a lot of time. “We’ve got an elected official that won a race, beat the incumbent while under an indictment.”
Special Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon, the DA in Coweta and Newton Counties who is prosecuting Hill, declined to comment.
An extraordinarily large jury pool, 350 people, has been called.
Defense attorney Steve Sadow, who is not connected to the case, said Hill may have the advantage, considering his popularity and his high profile in the county.
“If I was his defense attorney, I wouldn’t want him to be tried anywhere else. I would want him to stay at home,” Sadow said.
Hill’s lawyers did not ask that the trial be moved. They want him judged by the Clayton residents who returned him to office despite the pending criminal charges, the cost to taxpayers to resolve lawsuits over decisions in his first term and the bankruptcy filing by the man would be managing the Sheriff’s Office’s multimillion-dollar budget.
“There are a lot of people who know Victor and know him personally and may feel affinity for him. By the same token, he is sheriff of Clayton County and sheriffs tend to polarize people,” said Jonesboro defense attorney Keith Martin, who is affiliated with one of Hill’s four lawyers.
On many levels, the case against Hill has interesting twists.
Former Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, who took the office from Hill in the 2008 election, led the investigation some say was started simply because Hill had announced he was running in 2012.
Hill’s law enforcement certification was suspended when he was indicted, so he cannot make arrests or serve warrants. But Gov. Nathan Deal declined to start a process that could have resulted in Hill’s being suspended with pay because the pending charges might affect his running of the office.
Hill, who provoked controversy in his first four years as sheriff, is low-key in his second term and goes to extremes to avoid the media. Even as a candidate, he avoided local media and instead spoke directly, and unedited, to constituents via videos on YouTube and social networking sites and at community meetings. Once in office, he cultivated a positive image, responding to reports of crime by posting “crime suppression” units in neighborhoods for hours to deter alleged drug dealing or burglaries.
In recent months, Hill used “robo” calls to county residents, and potential jurors, urging them to report illegal activity or sending his well-wishes for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Collier said Friday those calls had to stop until the trial was over.
And for weeks, the sheriff has stationed deputies at a table in the courthouse lobby to urge passers-by to subscribe to a cellphone alert system that sends messages about bad weather or traffic problems or lookouts for missing children, with a tag that the message is brought by Hill.
Zon said in court filings that she was concerned those messages could influence jurors. But Collier said Friday the table and the deputies could stay.
The judge’s relationship to both sides of the case also is out of the ordinary. Collier said in court one time that he had a say in hiring DA Tracy Graham Lawson as a prosecutor many years ago and now sings in the church choir with her and attends Sunday School with her husband. Lawson asked Zon to prosecute the case to mitigate claims that it’s politically motivated.
And when he was a prosecutor, Collier worked cases with Hill, who was then a homicide detective. Collier also noted that he and his staff depend on Hill and his deputies to protect them at the courthouse and to oversee jurors hearing the case.
Collier is allowing three weeks for Hill’s trial on charges of racketeering, theft by taking, violation of oath of office and influencing a witness. There are 187 witnesses on the prosecution’s list and another three dozen for the defense. A significant number of the witnesses listed in court documents are current Clayton County Sheriff’s Office employees, including some whom Hill demoted, moved or disciplined in his first term.
The witness lists include Hill’s political opponents —Kimbrough, and Ricky Redding and Godreque Newsom, both candidates for sheriff in last summer’s Democratic primary.
And two witnesses who could be called by the prosecution are facing criminal charges of their own. They have been granted immunity but it only applies to anything they say in the testimony in the Hill case.
Jonathan Yusef Newton is facing 11 felony charges, including theft by taking, forgery and making a false statement, all related to the time he worked for Hill. The theft-by-taking charges in the indictment against Hill say the sheriff ordered Newton to work on a book about him on county time and that Hill arranged kickbacks for Newton from the company that printed Hill’s campaign newsletter.
Allegations include claims that Hill used county-issued cars and credit cards for vacations. He is also accused of having former employee Beatrice Powell, also facing criminal charges, classified as sick or on paid administrative leave so she would continue to get her salary while on vacations with the sheriff in South Florida, Mississippi and Helen in North Georgia.
All that, according to the indictment, constituted a criminal enterprise.
- Prosecution: Layla Zon is the district attorney for Alcoy Circuit, which is Walton and Newton Counties. She agreed to prosecute Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill as a special assistant district attorney in Clayton County because DA Tracy Graham Lawson was trying to dispel allegations that she brought the case for political reasons.
- Defense: Steven Frey, whose practice is based in Jonesboro, and Musa Ghanayem, whose office is in Atlanta began representing Victor Hill when he was indicted though they both dropped out of the case briefly. Drew Findling and is has his own law firm in Atlanta and his associate Marissa Goldberg joined the Hill defense team last fall.