Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill

Former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill

Credit: @GAFollowers via Twitter

A former Georgia sheriff convicted of violating the civil rights of people in his custody by unnecessarily strapping them into restraint chairs was sentenced Tuesday to serve a year and a half in prison.

A jury in October convicted Victor Hill — who was sheriff of Clayton County, just south of Atlanta — on six of seven federal charges. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of three years and 10 months in prison, while defense attorneys asked for a sentence of probation, home confinement and a fine.

Before he was sentenced, Hill told the judge: “My intent was never to harm or injure anybody. My intent was only for safety, proactive safety.”

In addition to the prison term, U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross ordered Hill to serve six years under supervision once he's released. During that period, he must perform 100 hours of community service and cannot work in law enforcement or serve as a consultant to a law enforcement agency.

Hill will remain free on bond until the Bureau of Prisons orders him to report.

His trial included about a week of testimony from more than three dozen witnesses, including the men who were restrained. Prosecutors said Hill ordered detainees strapped into restraint chairs at the county jail for hours even though they posed no threat and complied with deputies’ instructions. The use of the chairs was unnecessary, was improperly used as punishment and caused pain and bodily injury in violation of the civil rights of seven men, prosecutors argued.

Defense attorneys argued that Hill legally used the restraint chairs to keep order at the jail and didn't overstep his lawful authority. They also argued that he had no warning that such conduct could be considered criminal.

Defense attorneys submitted letters from supporters — including family members, clergy and Clayton County citizens — attesting to Hill's good character and four people called to speak at the sentencing asked the judge to show leniency.

A man who had been jailed in Clayton County said the structure and discipline imposed by Hill helped him kick a drug addiction and get his life in order. The current Clayton County sheriff said Hill had been a mentor to him. A jail chaplain said the jail was clean and well run and the county was safe when Hill was sheriff. And a longtime friend and employee called Hill a great leader, a great educator and a great defender of victims' rights.

Prosecutor Brent Gray, reacting to witness statements that the jail was spotless during Hill's tenure, told the judge: “The jail might have been clean, but the Constitution wasn't being respected in that jail at all.”

Jail employees said the restraint chair was often used as punishment and that “this was all personal with Mr. Hill,” Gray said. Detainees were tortured and jail employees were too frightened to speak up, he said.

Defense attorney Drew Findling invoked well-documented problems at the federal prison in Atlanta, which include corrupt employees, staffing shortages and deficient health care, and noted that federal prosecutors have prosecuted no one over those “far more egregious” issues.

“If the government is trying to ensure the constitutional protection of citizens, they need to look in their own backyard and not just single out Victor Hill,” he told reporters after the hearing.

He also said restraint chairs are used in jails all over the country and suggested that prosecutors zeroed in on Hill because he's “the shiny object,” a high-profile sheriff who's drawn both intense criticism and fierce support.

Ross told Hill that it was clear to her from his own testimony and from letters and statements from his supporters that he had wanted to be a law enforcement officer from an early age and had a love for the law.

“That's what makes this outcome so tragic,” she told him, adding that his arrogance and love of power seemed to have overcome his love of the law.

She said she “truly struggled” with the case because of the novelty of the issues raised. The federal sentencing guidelines called for a minimum sentence of three years and 10 months. But Ross ultimately decided to give Hill a sentence below that because she recognized good he did for his community.

Findling, who said Hill plans to appeal his conviction, said the judge's downward departure on sentencing “was a statement” and said they were grateful that Ross acknowledged his positive contributions.

Hill, 58, was suspended by the governor after his indictment and retired after his conviction. He had been a magnet for controversy from the time he first took office as Clayton County sheriff in 2005. He fired 27 deputies on his first day, though a judge later reinstated them. He used Batman imagery in campaign ads and on social media and called himself “The Crime Fighter,” sometimes using a tank his office owned during raids.

He failed to win reelection in 2008 after his first term and was under indictment — accused of using his office for person gain — when voters returned him to office in 2012. He stood trial in that corruption case, and jurors acquitted him on all 27 charges.

He pleaded no contest in 2016 to a reckless conduct charge after he shot and injured a woman in a model home in Gwinnett County, northeast of Atlanta. Both he and the woman said the 2015 shooting was an accident that happened while they practiced police tactics.