JONESBORO — As of the lunch break Tuesday, attorneys were able to qualify 21 jurors needed for the pool of 36 in the state’s case against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.
Hill is standing trial this week on 28 felonies mostly involving theft and lying allegations from his first term as sheriff during 2005 through 2008. Prosecutors charge Hill used county property and more than $20,000 in campaign funds for his personal use, indicting him in January 2012. Despite the criminal charges looming over him, Hill was re-elected to a second term in November and took office in January. He maintains his innocence and claims the prosecution is politically-motivated.
Trial Judge Albert Collier said of 350 jury summonses sent out, about 150 responded Monday. Of those, attorneys must whittle down to a pool of 36. From those three dozen jurors, Collier will seat 12 plus two alternates. Once the jury is seated, opening statements will be heard and witnesses will begin taking the stand.
Jurors are being told that the trial could take three weeks but special prosecutor Layla Zon and defense attorneys Steve Frey and Drew Findling — half of Hill’s defense team — are hopeful the case can be completed sooner.
Questioning of jurors Tuesday centered around pretrial publicity and their abilities to serve fairly and impartially. Two jurors were struck specifically because their statements indicated an inability to serve in that manner.
One juror said he’d met Hill in a restaurant for five minutes and came away thinking favorably of him.
“He seemed nice,” said the juror. “I never got any bad vibes from him. He’s all right in my book. I’d have a hard time believing he could do anything bad.”
Pressed by Zon to be as clear as possible about his position as a potential juror, the man acknowledged he was confused.
“He hadn’t done anything wrong to me,” he said.
Findling told him he “seemed like the kind of person who’d want to do the right thing.”
“All I can do is try,” said the man.
However, Zon had concerns about the man’s ability to be fair and impartial.
“When I questioned him yesterday and today, he struggled with his answers,” she said. “At best, the juror is conflicted. He clearly has a bias for the accused. He’s walking between being unsure and not being able to be fair and impartial.”
Findling said he thought it was premature to excuse the juror and asked Collier to allow him to return for further questioning. Collier disagreed.
“There is a fine line and I don’t want to cross that fine line,” he said, striking the juror for cause.
Another juror was excused after repeatedly telling Zon she could not sit in judgment of someone else, based on religious grounds.
While all jurors were questioned about pretrial publicity, one man seemed to sum it up.
“There’s been a lot of talk about it on the news,” he said. “You gotta be blind to the facts not to know about it.”
The juror, while not yet excused, echoed his fellow juror’s sentiment that whatever Hill is accused of has nothing to do with him.
“What he did doesn’t effect me,” said the juror. “I know the judicial system has flaws and I wouldn’t want someone falsely accused on my conscience.”