By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — Defense attorneys for former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill lost a bid to dismiss the prosecution’s appeal of the judge's decision to drop five counts against Hill.
Attorneys on both sides of the case against Hill were in Clayton County Superior Court Friday afternoon to argue the defense motion. Hill was a no-show for the second hearing in a row, having waived his right to appear.
After hearing arguments Friday, Judge Albert Collier said he would review case law and render a decision the same day. That decision in favor of the state came down about 11 p.m. Friday, said Steve Frey, one of Hill's four defense attorneys.
Hill’s repeated absences in court, although approved by the trial judge, created the domino effect that ended with the appeal, said Special Prosecutor Layla Zon of Alcovy Circuit.
“The state was ready to go forward with the similar transactions motion last week and we believed the defense was too,” she said. “But we couldn’t go forward because the defendant was not here.”
Zon wanted to present evidence of similar transactions because trial Judge Albert Collier dropped five of 37 felony counts against Hill last month. All five concerned allegations of the misuse of Hill’s campaign funds. Collier ruled that Georgia law does not dictate the true owner of a campaign account so the candidate is presumed the owner.
Because state law only addresses misuse of those funds by a candidate — conviction of which constitutes a misdemeanor and not a felony — the alleged theft could not be used as the underlying reason to charge Hill with racketeering. Zon intended to use alleged incidents where Hill accessed campaign funds for personal expenses as similar transactions in the case against him since she no longer had the indicted counts.
Zon said Friday that the issue is important not just to the Hill case but to the state in general.
“It’s not just important to Victor Hill,” she said. “It’s important to all citizens of this state. I’ve joked that this means I could just raise $100,000 in campaign funds, take the money and retire to the Bahamas where they can’t extradite me.”
Zon filed the appeal last week 90 minutes after the hearing where she’d planned to present the similar transactions. Collier took issue with that Friday.
“Why didn’t you say anything about filing the appeal last week?” he said. “I find it very interesting. I normally hear similar transaction arguments just before jury selection. I wanted to get this case heard before Jan. 1, which is an important date.”
Defense attorney Drew Findling, one of four lawyers representing the unemployed Hill, argued that Zon should have filed a certificate of immediate review with Collier instead of going to the Court of Appeals.
“The remedy for this is, ‘See ya Nov. 20 for motions at 1:30 and on Nov. 26 for jury selection,’” he said.
Zon also voiced an objection to Hill’s absence.
“We’re at a critical stage of the proceedings,” she said.
Hill had the right to waive and Collier's permission to not attend but the reason for his absence was not announced. A contingent of Clayton County NAACP members, including President C. Synamon Baldwin, attended the hearing.
Hill, 47, is accused of a variety of felonies relating to his term in office, from 2005 until 2008. He was indicted in January and qualified to run for a second term months later. He won the runoff in August against incumbent Kem Kimbrough and was considered the sheriff-elect.
However, in September, Clayton County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Garland Watkins qualified to run as a write-in candidate against Hill. If Watkins wins Tuesday, Hill’s issues will be confined to the courtroom. If Hill wins, and his case isn’t disposed of before Jan. 1, he will be the first Clayton County sheriff under felony indictment to take office.
His law enforcement certification was suspended when he was indicted and he has until July to get it back or he is ineligible to hold office. If he wins Tuesday and remains under indictment in January, Gov. Nathan Deal can keep him from assuming the office until his case is over.
If he is convicted of a felony, Hill is ineligible to hold office and an interim sheriff will be appointed. A special election will likely be held.