Court reporter Barbara Cooley, in center, is flanked by defense attorney Steve Frey and prosecutors Melanie Bell and Layla Zon to her left and defense attorneys Drew Findling, Musa Ghanayem and Marissa Goldberg to her right during a sidebar with Collier Wednesday afternoon.
JONESBORO — A race bias question was raised by special prosecutor Layla Zone when a mostly black jury was seated Thursday morning to determine the fate of Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill.
The panel of 12 jurors and two alternates is made of 12 blacks, one white and one Asian. There are three females, all black.
Defense attorney Drew Findling argued that Zon used all her “strikes” on black jurors, in other words, to excuse them from the panel. Zon countered that the defense used its “strikes” to rid the panel of 75 percent — three of four — of the white jurors.
Zon said she used what she had to work with.
“All our strikes were based on the jury pool we had,” she said. “All were African Americans with the exception of four Caucasians.”
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier held a brief hearing on the issue before seating the 14 jurors. He ruled that the defense was race-neutral in making its choices.
Opening statements started at 10:40 a.m. with Zon addressing the jurors.
“What is a thief?” she said. “Everyone knows what a thief is, we don’t have to define it. A thief is someone who takes property that belongs to someone else on purpose. That’s all this case is about.”
Hill was indicted in January 2012 on 37 felonies — largely theft by taking — but is being prosecuted starting Thursday on 28 counts because Collier agreed to drop nine charges.
Hill took office in January 2005 as the county’s first black sheriff. He lost a re-election bid in 2008 but ran last year under indictment and ascended to office again in January.
The charges largely involve Hill’s alleged misuse of taxpayers’ money to pay for vacations with two women, one who worked for him and one who was his alleged campaign manager. He is also charged with trying to influence one of the women when she was subpoenaed to testify before a special purpose grand jury convened to investigate Hill.
To that end, said Zon, “The defendant, Victor Hill, is a thief.”
She cautioned jurors that the case is not about whether Hill is a good man or not a good man, or whether he was or is a good sheriff. It’s not, said Zon, about how high or low the crime rates are.
“He exercised control over his department and abused that control,” she said. “He had an employee come to his house to write a biography for the sheriff.”
That employee, Jonathan Newton, was also indicted, for allegedly taking kickbacks from the publication of Hill’s monthly newsletter, “The Star,” and is reportedly prepared to testify against Hill under the promise of immunity.
The employee who traveled with him, Beatrice Powell, was also indicted for lying to the grand jury about her trips with Hill. Powell is also expected to be granted immunity in exchange for her testimony.
Zon said she doesn’t expect the defense to challenge much of the case since there is no question that Hill took the trips to Helen and surrounding states.
“At the end of the day, it happened, he went on those trips,” she said. “He took the county car. He took county fuel. What is disputed is his intent.”
Defense attorney Steve Frey told the jury that Hill had every right as sheriff to take a county vehicle out of town and use county fuel to get him there.
“He’s the sheriff, 365, 24/7,” said Frey. “If he goes out of town and gets a call he has to return immediately. Going to the Delta counter and asking for a seat on the next flight out is going to cost way more than filling up a county car.”
Frey said Hill enjoyed the perks of being sheriff and having access to county vehicles.
Frey also characterized the case against Hill as being a politically-motivated, mean-spirited attempt to keep him from running for office. The chief investigator on the case, David Ward, was one of 27 deputies Hill fired on his first day in office in January 2005. Ward sued Hill and the county with the other deputies, and won a settlement and a chance to get his job back.
Ward opted to work for the Clayton County Police Department, said Frey, and was fired for lying about a “secret” email account. Ward returned to the sheriff’s office after Hill lost to Kem Kimbrough and began “spying” on Hill and investigating his life, said Frey.
“He began spying on his nemesis, Victor Hill,” said Frey, about an investigation that resulted in Hill’s indictment by the grand jury in January 2012.
Thursday afternoon the state was slated to call its first witness.