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Conviction of Georgia sheriff shines light on push to hold cops accountable  

While some Clayton County residents say they felt safe under Sheriff Victor Hill, others say his conviction for civil rights violations over the use of restraint chairs illustrates deep issues in the justice system.

ATLANTA (CN) — After a Georgia sheriff was found guilty late Wednesday afternoon of violating detainees' civil rights by strapping them to chairs for hours as punishment, some civil rights advocates say the conviction is just a drop in the bucket for holding law enforcement accountable.

Federal prosecutors indicted Victor Hill in April 2021, accusing the Clayton County sheriff of using restraint chairs for purposes other than emergencies when an inmate threatens to injure themselves or someone else, damage property or has shown violent or uncontrollable behavior.

Hill, who served as the county’s sheriff for 10 years, was ultimately found guilty of violating the civil rights of six detainees and causing them physical pain and bodily injury. It took jurors over three days to reach their verdict after beginning deliberations on Friday afternoon.

"Sadly we know of too many examples of sheriffs engaging in the same kind of punitive brutality that was challenged in this case," said Lauren Bonds, the legal director of the National Police Accountability Project, in an interview.

She added, "There is very little transparency into what happens in jails and local governments have few options to check an abusive sheriff. We hope that the jury's decision will put other sheriff's offices on notice that they aren't above the law and can face consequences."

Prosecutors accused Hill of using unnecessary force by strapping the detainees into restraint chairs for four or more hours even though they were compliant with officers and not posing any threats inside the jail. 

Many of the victims testified about urinating on themselves multiple times and having scars on their wrists from being tied down. One of them was a 17-year old who was restrained in a chair for 10 consecutive hours after getting into an argument with his mother and trashing the home.

Collette Flanagan, founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, said many law enforcement officers such as Hill decide to play judge and take it upon themselves to treat detainees as if they've already been found guilty.

"Deaths in police custody happen all the time in this country and yet it is the least 'use of force' that is even acknowledged or even recorded in most cases," said Flanagan.

Other reports have surfaced in recent years of people being mistreated through the use of restraint chairs in detention facilities, with some even resulting in death.

In 2020, the Marshall Project found that the use of restraint chairs in county jails around the United States has been linked to 20 deaths over the prior six years.  The United Nations Committee Against Torture has called to abolish the use of what critics have called "the devil's chair," and since the early 2000s some jurisdictions have banned them in their detention facilities.

"The Constitution applies at the beginning at the jail just as it applies here. Defendant Victor Hill is presumed not guilty just like those detainees were," U.S. Attorney Brent Gray told jurors during closing arguments Friday. He then presented the court with a photo of a yellow warning label on the back of a restraint chair that read: "Use of without first reading and thoroughly understanding the instructions could cause injury or death."

After a week of trial, the jurors had been deliberating since Friday afternoon.

During deliberations, jurors sent two notes to U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross, an Obama appointee, expressing concern about one particular juror who was not listening to what the others had to say and preventing them from rendering a unanimous verdict. 

The uncooperative juror told the others that “the sheriff and the president are above the law and not required to follow the Constitution."

Despite the juror later telling reporters that he believed "justice was served" and the jury ultimately reaching a unanimous verdict, his comment received attention from some Democrats who believe it reveals political influences.

Joyce Vance, a law professor at the University of Alabama and former U.S. attorney, tweeted that the juror's lack of cooperation is "more evidence of the damage Trump is doing."

A resident of Roswell, Georgia, tweeted "This is an alarm bell for democracy. No American is above the law, but we have people thinking the President and law enforcement are. This is why the vote this year is so crucial."

Others were troubled by the news of the verdict for different reasons. Some residents of Clayton County told local reporters they saw less gang violence when Hill was in office.

"He is a true crime fighter. Praying for him," tweeted Mable Thomas, a former Democratic member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

The suspended sheriff was found not guilty of violating the civil rights of one detainee, Joseph Harper, who pretended to be unconscious during his intake, due to a lack of evidence suggesting that Hill was the one responsible for putting him into the restraint chair.

Hill faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in the coming months.

“No person, whether a member of law enforcement or an elected official or otherwise, has the right to assume the power to violate the constitutional rights of citizens in their county,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan Buchanan.

Defense attorney Drew Findling told reporters he plans to appeal the verdict.

During his testimony on the last day of the trial, Hill said he ran the jail like a boot camp and used the restraint chairs as a "preventative action as opposed to a reactive action." He explained that he placed detainees in the chairs based on "the totality of the circumstances" and their actions prior to their arrest that he viewed as "pre-attack indicators."

Hill's conviction comes nine years after he was acquitted of 32 felony counts against him in state court by a Clayton County jury. Accused of abusing his office for personal gambling and travel expenses, his charges included racketeering, theft by taking, making false statements and violating his oath as a public officer.

The controversial sheriff was also sued by civil rights advocates in 2020 for not responding to open records requests related to Covid-19 cases inside the jail and for failing to take initiatives to protect inmates and staff from the deadly virus.

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