Jurors on Thursday acquitted Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill of 27 felony charges including theft and giving false statements, clearing the way for him to resume his law enforcement career after a racketeering trial that had threatened to end it.
Testimony in the trial lasted four days, and Hill did not take the stand. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the jury deliberated for two hours on Wednesday and then all of Thursday before returning its verdict.
Hill was elected last year despite being under indictment on felony corruption charges. He wasn’t in office when he was indicted in February 2012, but the charges stem from his previous term as the county’s sheriff, from 2005 to 2008. The indictment accused Hill of using his office for personal gain.
Special Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon said during opening statements that Hill often put county-paid gas in his county car and drove it out of state for trips that he paid for in part by using a government credit card.
Two young women — one a former county employee and one who still worked for the sheriff’s office but who was on paid medical leave that Hill arranged — accompanied him on these trips, Zon said.
Hill also had another sheriff’s office employee come to his house to write his autobiography while the employee was being paid by the county, Zon said.
Defense attorney Steven Frey has said Hill was dejected after failing to win re-election in 2008 and took several vacations. He argued that Hill used the county vehicle in case he needed to quickly return quickly, and said gas for the car was cheaper than a plane ticket would have been. Frey argued no one asked if Hill accidentally charged a hotel room to the county card because they were too busy trying to indict him.
Hill’s attorneys have argued the charges were a politically motivated attack and his legal team hugged each other shortly after the verdict was read. His attorney, Drew Findling, said he was thrilled.
“Like we’ve said from the beginning, the people have taken this case from the ballot box to the jury box” Findling said.
If Hill had been convicted of any of the felony charges against him, he would have been removed from office since Georgia law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from holding the office of sheriff.
Even though he was acquitted, he could still face disciplinary action. The Peace Officer Standards and Training Council planned to complete its investigation into the allegations following the criminal trial, the group’s executive director, Ken Vance, said earlier this year. The council could decide on disciplinary action up to revocation of Hill’s peace officer certification, he said.
Findling said he didn’t anticipate any challenges from the council following the not-guilty verdict.
“There’s no way that they’re going to go against the wish of the voters,” he said Thursday.
Hill was unseated in 2008 by Kem Kimbrough in Clayton, a county of about a quarter-million people just south of Atlanta. However, Hill thwarted Kimbrough’s bid for re-election in last year’s Democratic primary runoff, defeating him by more than 1,000 votes. Hill was the only candidate on the ballot in November, his lone challenger a write-in candidate.
Hill’s situation is unique — the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has said it’s not aware of another instance of someone under indictment being elected or serving as sheriff in the state.
Georgia law provides for the governor to convene a three-person panel to consider the suspension of elected officials who are indicted while in office. But Gov. Nathan Deal said in January that because Hill was not in office when he was indicted, the law prohibited him from taking such action against him.
In Clayton County, the sheriff’s department has typically carried out court functions, such as serving warrants and running the jail. A county police force handles other law enforcement duties.
But Hill favored a more high-profile approach, taking a tough-on-crime stance in his first term and boasting on his campaign website of efforts to crack down on drugs and prostitution. He used a tank owned by the agency during drug raids.
He became mired in controversy the day he took office in 2005, when he fired 27 deputies. He said there were valid reasons for each firing, though a judge later ordered that the deputies be reinstated.
He was sworn in for his second term in January and has taken a more low-key approach since then.