By Daniel Silliman
On the 19th floor of the federal courthouse, a room paneled in honey-colored wood and carpeted in red and gold, a judge and jury are seeing either the protection of a free society, or an arrogant refusal to accept change related to Clayton County's 2004 election.
It depends on which attorney the jury believes. In Judge Orinda D. Evans' courtroom at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta, five women and three men -- five of them black and three of them white -- were sworn in to decide the dispute between George Mark Tuggle, the brother of the former Clayton County sheriff, and Victor Hill, the current sheriff.
Both attorneys told the jury Monday afternoon, during opening arguments in George Mark Tuggle vs. Sheriff Victor Hill, that the case was straightforward, simple, and about a lot more than an apparent spat, an uncivil curse and a couple of phone calls.
Both sides basically agree that Tuggle called the sheriff's office on Hill's first day there in January 2004. Tuggle left a phone message, asking to speak with that "short lil' [expletive] sheriff of y'alls." He called again, a few minutes later, and told someone on Hill's command staff that Hill and anyone who worked for him was "low down scum."
Tuggle, according to Atkins, was mad at Hill for firing 27 employees on his first day in office, firings which were later found to be unjustified. The axing, which was public, dramatic and divisive, made Tuggle mad enough to call the sheriff's office twice.
Tuggle was arrested the next day on charges of making harassing phone calls.
According to the man's attorney, the arrest was at the explicit order of the new sheriff.
William J. Atkins, representing Tuggle in a suit seeking punitive damages, told the jury Hill had ordered his rival's brother arrested to make a point about criticizing the new regime in Clayton County.
"There was a new sheriff in town," Atkins said. "Hill was saying, 'You mess with me, you criticize me, this is what's going to happen. He plastered [Tuggle's mug shot] all over the 6 o'clock news in a big hurry, and you can be sure that other citizens thought twice about calling the sheriff's office after that."
Atkins said there were 10,000 outstanding warrants waiting to be served when Hill took office, but the sheriff ordered his subordinates to rush and make this one arrest, on account of a couple of phone calls.
"Two calls, six minutes, same day, and that's it," the attorney said. He called the arrest a violation of "some of the most fundamental rights we all share as a society" and said it is significant "not only for George Mark Tuggle, but for all of us."
James Dearing, representing the sheriff in the lawsuit, said the jury should be incredulous, hearing Tuggle described as the "everyman" out of an old Frank Capra movie.
"Let me tell you what this case is really, really about," Dearing said. "It's about entitlement, jealousy, and a refusal to accept change ... Unbeknownst to you, you are now involved in the 2004 election. It's cloaked in other things, but that's what it's about."
Dearing told the jury "Mr. Tuggle" had previously verbally abused people who were campaigning for Hill. He said the former sheriff's brother wasn't anything like an "everyman," and he was offended he didn't receive special treatment, telling the guards at the jail he didn't think he should have to be handcuffed. "He believed he was entitled to something different," Dearing said. "The change that came to Clayton County in a short time was too much for him."
According to Dearing, there are two crucial questions which protect the sheriff from the accusations: "Was what was done, reasonable?" and, "Did the sheriff have anything to do with it?"
Those two questions, as answered by "legitimate" evidence, exonerate Hill, according to his attorney. But Dearing said, the case isn't really about the answers and crucial evidence, but about change, entitlement and an election.
"The battleground moved from the election 2004," Dearing said, "to now in the federal courthouse, 19th floor."
The civil trial is set to continue on Tuesday, with testimony from Hill.