Defense attorney Drew Findling (standing) talks to (l-r) Victor Hill, and other defense attorneys Marissa Goldberg and Steve Frey during Friday’s pretrial hearing. Hill stands trial starting Monday. (Staff photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO —Attorneys on both sides in the case against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill met in chambers Friday for an hour and a half with trial Judge Al Collier, conducting the bulk of a pretrial hearing outside the public’s view.
Collier said the location was requested by defense attorney Drew Findling “to streamline” the hearing. All parties returned to open court and Collier summarized what took place behind closed doors. Findling is one of four attorneys representing Hill.
Collier also asked Findling to put on the record his reasoning for asking for the private conference, after complaints were made by news reporters.
“It was silly to do it out in open court,” said Findling. “By going into chambers, we were able to discuss things and recommend a decision as to the best way to resolve some of these issues. It was done fairly to both parties and to Sheriff Hill.”
Hill stayed in the courtroom during the chambers meeting.
Special prosecutor Layla Zon said she agreed with holding the meeting there and said she thought it helped prioritize issues.
However, Collier said it wouldn’t happen again.
“From here on out, everything will be done in an open courtroom and taken down for the record,” he said.
Among the motions decided behind closed doors was a state’s request that Hill’s Robo Calls stop, a Nixle text alert subscription table be dismantled and he not be allowed to attend trial in uniform or with a firearm.
Collier ruled the calls will cease until after the trial but ruled the table could stay. He also ruled that Hill can wear a badge to court but no uniform or firearm.
The state had also asked that deputies attending the trial not do so in uniform. However, Collier said he wouldn’t dictate their clothing but told the attorneys to make sure their witnesses conduct themselves appropriately.
Collier also approved the state’s dropping of four counts involving the allegation Hill used his own employees during two 2007 events that raised money for his campaign because of statute of limitations issues. However, Collier said the charges were within the statute of limitations for the purposes of prosecuting him under the RICO Act and the counts will remain viable as predicate acts to explain other charges.
Hill will not face prosecution for those four specific counts.
There were several motions considered in open, one of which concerned immunity for former Hill employees Jonathan Newton and Beatrice Powell. Both face their own day in court, having been indicted in Clayton County for alleged wrongdoing while under Hill’s employ.
Defense attorney Steve Frey wanted to know if there is a plea deal on the table for the two, who are expected to testify against Hill. Zon said there is not but said she would ask for immunity related to their testimony so it couldn’t be used against them in their own cases.
Zon said the witnesses have made no exculpatory statements, which means they have nothing to say that will justify or explain Hill’s alleged guilt.
“Should the witnesses testify, a grant of immunity will be relevant,” said Collier. “I accept what the state says.”
Zon also argued in favor of being able to use “similar transactions” in the case, known to legal eagles now as Rule 404(b). Trial law changed in January to specifically exclude that language and to focus on prohibiting “prior bad acts” against a defendant for the sole purpose of disparaging his character or reputation.
Zon said Hill laundered $24,000 in campaign funds for his personal use n the fall of 2008 and in 2011. She argued that presenting that evidence to a jury would not be to show Hill in a negative light but for probative purposes. Findling disagreed, saying presenting the information “sidetracks” the case.
“It takes us into an issue of prejudice of character,” he said.
Zon had the last word.
“He’s trying to characterize using campaign funds for personal use as character evidence but at the same time, he contends it’s not illegal to do so,” she said. “How is it prejudicial if it’s not a crime? Hill was supposed to use that money for certain purchases and he uses it the way he wants to anyway.”
Collier said he would take the weekend to review the law and issue a ruling Monday. He also updated the attorneys that 128 of 350 jury surveys had been returned as of last Friday.
Hill was indicted on 37 felony counts in January 2011. The charges mostly involve alleged wrongdoing while Hill was sheriff during 2005-2008. He lost a re-election bid in 2008 but went back into office in January under the cloud of indictment. Hill maintains his innocence.
Since his indictment, a total of nine counts have been dropped, leaving Hill to face 28 felonies when his trial starts next week. If convicted on one felony, he will be ineligible to hold office.
Jury selection is to begin about 9:30 a.m. Monday.