Special prosecutor Layla Zon questions potential jurors Monday in the case against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.
JONESBORO — Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier ruled Monday that the state can use similar transactions in their case against Sheriff Victor Hill.
Collier also ruled that spectators cannot wear anything showing their support for either side in the case and outbursts won’t be tolerated.
Special prosecutor Layla Zon asked for the ruling and pointed to the response by Hill supporters when Hill entered the courtroom Monday morning. As if on cue, supporters stood for his entrance.
“He entered the courtroom to a thunderous roar,” said Zon. “It was as if Your Honor entered the courtroom. Jurors should not feel influenced.”
Zon asked that anyone attending the trial not be allowed to wear clothing or buttons indicating their support for either side of the case. She also didn’t want any spectators bursting out in emotion, cheering or applauding during the trial.
One of Hill’s four defense attorneys, Drew Findling, agreed with Zon to a point.
“There should be some decorum as far as behavior,” he said. “People shouldn’t yell out things.”
However, he drew the line at what people chose to wear.
“Verbal outbursts are one thing,” said Findling. “But I think you’re treading on dangerous First Amendment issues if we don’t let people wear what they want to wear as long as it’s not offensive.”
Collier disagreed, saying that anyone wearing such items will be turned away at the courtroom door and allowed to either remove the items or change clothes if they wanted to return.
He also forbade outbursts.
“While the jurors are present, there will be no outbursts, cheering or applause,” he said. “If anyone breaks into cheers or applause, they will immediately be removed. My main concern is a fair and impartial jury.”
Collier ruled Monday that the state can use three allegations that Hill spent campaign funds for his personal use as similar transactions. Collier dropped the specific counts against Hill last year but Zon wants to use the alleged crimes as the basis for other felonies.
Findling asked for a certificate of immediate review so the Georgia Court of Appeals could rule on the decision.
“We think the court’s decision is wrong,” said Findling. “We think this is crucial evidence and that the state is trying to get it in the back door when they couldn’t get it in the front door. It’s really about character assassination.”
The issues were heard before a panel of 14 potential jurors were brought in for questioning. Collier said a little more than 150 people responded to the 350 jury summonses issued for the trial.
Jurors were asked about pre-trial publicity, whether they’d gotten a Robo Call from the sheriff’s office or heard Hill address groups. Of the first panel, six of 14 people said they had heard or read news accounts about the trial. All said they could remain fair despite having been exposed to pre-trial publicity.
Zon also wanted to know if jurors heard or saw Hill supporters gathered at the courthouse steps Monday chanting and holding signs. Several jurors said they had but were not influenced.
The Clayton County Chapter of the NAACP issued an email over the weekend urging members to meet at the courthouse at 8 a.m. to carry signs and show support for Hill. They stayed out front as jurors stood in line to make their 9 a.m. appointment inside.
Cassandra Merrilles of Jonesboro was one of those to turn up for the demonstration. Merrilles, a retired teacher, said she has been impressed by Hill’s apparent allegiance to education.
“He’s been an education kind of sheriff for me,” she said. “He’s part of the village. He’s always out there for the community, young people and seniors. He’s a positive young man.”
Merrilles said she thinks Hill has had a positive impact on crime in Clayton County.
“When he was out of office, my house was broken into and gangs were running rampant,” she said. “Without a media blitz, he’s just taken care of this county. He goes out to the schools and talks to kids. He’s almost like a godfather.”
Former East Point Councilman Eddie Lee Brewster held a “Stand Your Ground for Sheriff Hill” sign created by state Rep. Keisha Waites. Brewster called the criminal proceedings “political prosecution.”
“What they are talking about he allegedly did amounted to ethics violations at the most,” he said. “These are not criminal charges. In my mind, it seems like the case should have been over when he was elected to office because the people spoke when they voted him in.”
Brewster said Hill should be allowed to “get back to the job of fighting crime in Clayton County.”
State Rep. Keisha Waites was also among those showing support.
“I’m just here making sure the voters are being heard,” she said. “I’m supporting my colleague.”
State Rep. Ronnie Mabra was also there.
“I want to make sure the voters’ interests are represented and the judicial process goes in the proper direction,” he said.
“Because we’ve seen what happens when it doesn’t,” said Waites.
The parking lot filled quickly Monday morning and there was a heavy presence of sheriff’s deputies outside and around the courthouse on Tara Boulevard. A K-9 unit patrolled the wooded area south of the complex.
One of the exit-only doors was opened to allow two lines into the lobby for the security process. Long tables held gray plastic bins similar to the ones used at airport security for patrons to fill with handbags, backpacks, laptops and the contents of their pockets.
Once through security, visitors were greeted by courthouse personnel helping direct them to their destination. Jurors for Hill’s trial gathered in the larger courtroom 401, known as the ceremonial courtroom, but jury selection is being conducted in Collier’s courtroom.
The county government arranged for shuttle service to transport visitors parking in the back of the complex to the front entrance.
Hill faces 28 felony counts related mostly to theft by taking allegations. He maintains his innocence.