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Trial begins over Georgia sheriff’s use of restraint chairs as punishment

The Clayton County sheriff, who has faced criminal charges before, is accused by federal prosecutors of violating the civil rights of seven detainees.

ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys presented their opening arguments Thursday before a jury that will decide whether an Atlanta-area sheriff violated the civil rights of compliant detainees by strapping them into restraint chairs for several hours.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill was indicted by federal prosecutors in April 2021, accused of violating the civil rights of three men and one teenager in his custody by using unreasonable force to punish them. Three additional alleged victims were included in subsequent indictments.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp suspended Hill two months later after a three-member panel decided the sheriff could not perform his duties while under indictment.

Following a lengthy juror selection process Wednesday, in which potential jurors were extensively questioned about any predispositions to matters involved in the case, the trial began Thursday with prosecutors informing the jury that federal law forbids restraint chairs to be used as a form of punishment.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bret Hobson told the court that restraint chairs are only to be used if a detainee is violent, uncontrollable or posing a threat to themself or someone else.

According to Hobson, the seven detainees were strapped in the restraint chairs for at least four hours and several urinated on themselves and had scars on their wrists.

Hill "took it upon himself to teach them a lesson" and "willfully" used more force than necessary, despite undergoing annual use of force trainings, said Hobson.

Prosecutors presented the jury with a video of one of the detainees after being booked in the Clayton County jail. The video shows the detainee in handcuffs, complying with officers and asking if he was entitled to a "fair and speedy trial," to which Hill responded, "You're entitled to sit in this chair," before strapping him in.

A second video showed another one of Hill's alleged victims following officers' instructions while being searched and calmly sitting for several minutes in handcuffs before being taken to a restraint chair.

Hill had allegedly called this victim prior after a deputy told him they were having a payment dispute over landscaping work and was told to "go fuck himself." After attempting to contact Hill several times after that, the man was arrested for "harassing communications."

Another one of the alleged victims was a 17-year-old arrested for vandalizing his mother's home during an argument, who prosecutors say showed no resistance before being restrained in a chair for nearly eight hours.

Prosecutors said another detainee couldn't have possibly posed a threat because he faked unconsciousness while being transported to the jail.

But Hill's defense counsel told jurors in opening argument that this was all part of the sheriff's "strict and orderly reputation."

Attorney Marissa Goldberg of the Findling Law Firm told the court that as the highest law enforcement officer in the county, Hill has a duty to protect the lives of citizens and described the jail as being "boot camp-like."

Goldberg said that the "totality of the circumstances" justified his use of the restraint chairs.

"It can be very hard for someone who is coming off the streets into the jail," said Goldberg. "They may be suffering a mental disability."

Contrary to prosecutors' allegations, Goldberg said that the inmates in restraint chairs were checked on every 15 minutes.

Overseen by U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross, an Obama appointee, the trial is expected to take two to three weeks, with prosecutors calling more than 30 witnesses to the stand.

Despite Hill's popularity with local residents, serving four terms as the elected sheriff, this is not the first time he has faced federal charges.

In 2012, Hill was accused of abusing his office for personal gambling and travel expenses and was charged with racketeering, theft by taking, making a false statement, influencing a witness and violating his oath as a public officer.

But prosecutors failed to make a strong enough argument and the jury found Hill not guilty on all 27 charges.

Despite the Georgia Sheriff's Association urging then-Governor Nathan Deal to suspend Hill pending the resolution of his indictment, Deal refused to do so.

Three years later, Gwinnett County police received a 911 call from Hill stating that he had accidently shot a friend of his in the abdomen while practicing "police tactics."

Although Hill was charged with reckless conduct and his statements about the position of Gwenevere McCord's body and the location of weapons found in the model home where the relator worked did not match police evidence, he maintained his position and a clean criminal record under Georgia's First Offender Act.

 In May 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and the Southern Center for Human Rights sued Hill for not responding to open records requests related to Covid-19 cases inside the jail. Two months later, they filed another suit claiming the sheriff's department failed to protect the jail's inmates and staff from the deadly virus by not providing masks and not social distancing, allegedly putting more than two people in cells.

Hill was reelected as the county's sheriff that November.

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