Detainees testify in rights abuse trial of Georgia sheriff

Posted at 11:13 AM, October 19, 2022 and last updated 3:50 PM, July 7, 2023

ATLANTA (AP) — Two former jail detainees testified that deputies of a Georgia sheriff charged with violating their civil rights kept them in restraint chairs for hours, causing them to urinate on themselves while they were bound.

“It felt horrible,” one of the men, Joseph Harper, told a jury Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. “I had to use the bathroom on myself twice. I couldn’t hold it.”

FILE – Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill speaks at a candidate forum in Rex, Ga., on Aug. 16, 2012. Hill stands accused of punishing detainees by having them strapped into a restraint chair for hours even though they posed no threat and obeyed instructions. A federal grand jury in April 2021 indicted Hill, saying he violated the civil rights of four people in his custody.(Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill is standing trial on federal charges that he violated the rights of seven detainees. Prosecutors say their placement in restraint chairs was unnecessary, was improperly used as punishment and caused pain and bodily injury.

Hill is widely known as one of metro Atlanta’s most flamboyant lawmen. He calls himself “The Crime Fighter” and uses Batman imagery to promote himself on social media and in campaign ads. This is his second trial on criminal charges. Clayton County voters reelected Hill in 2012 while he was under indictment the first time, accused of using his office for personal gain. He beat those charges.

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Hill has pleaded not guilty to the civil rights charges, which his attorneys say are politically motivated. Drew Findling, one of Hill’s lawyers, cross-examined both men Tuesday about what he said where inconsistencies between their trial testimony and what they had previously told investigators.

Walter Thomas was jailed in Clayton County in May 2020 after a Georgia state trooper pulled him over for speeding and found drugs in his car. Thomas testified that jailers kept him in a restraint chair for more than four hours without giving him a break, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“I actually was crying,” Thomas said on the witness stand. “I was scared, nervous. Just all over the place.”

Asked by prosecutor Brett Hobson if he had wet himself while restrained, Thomas answered: “About three or four times.”

Harper was booked into the jail in April 2020 on charges he had threatened his sister and eluded police. He is now serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated battery and false imprisonment.

Harper testified he felt pain and cramps while bound in the restraint chair, with his hands cuffed behind his back and straps around his waist and upper arms. A video played for the jury showed a mask on his face to keep him from spitting at jailers.

Prosecutors say Hill violated his own policy stating that a restraint chair should be used on violent or uncontrollable detainees to prevent injury or property damage if other techniques don’t work. The policy also says a restraint chair “will never be authorized as a form of punishment.”

During cross-examination, Findling noted that Harper had told the FBI he had been knocked unconscious as police tried to arrest him, but later admitted in court that he was faking. The defense attorney also challenged Thomas’ account to the FBI that the state trooper who pulled him over had been rude and uncooperative.