JONESBORO — Defense attorney Drew Findling told jurors Wednesday that what Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill is accused of doing is no big deal, sarcastically comparing him to Mafia godfathers in an attempt to downplay the state’s case.
“This is a not guilty verdict in 32 seconds,” he said. “Go in there, select a foreperson, come back out in 32 seconds. What a waste of your time, income, sacrifices to your family, but we’ve got ya so you gotta get work done.”
Hill stands accused of 27 felonies, mostly theft by taking, and faces years in prison if convicted. If convicted of one felony, he is ineligible to hold office. Prosecutors charge that Hill illegally used county vehicles, credit card, fuel and employees for his personal gain.
The defense team never disputed that Hill took the cars on out of town trips with female companions or that he used county gas to fuel those trips. Their argument remained constant throughout the trial — Hill was entitled to do what he did because he was sheriff.
Findling said the “true racketeer” was former Sheriff Kem Kimbrough, who beat Hill in the 2008 sheriff’s race but lost to him last year. Hill was Clayton County’s first black sheriff, Kimbrough was the second.
Findling referred to the investigators who put together the case against Hill as a “sea of whiteness,” and made several references to an ankle monitor as being “shackles” before comparing what some witnesses endured to 1800s slavery. He accused special prosecutor Layla Zon of questioning witness Beatrice Powell’s “womanhood” and berated the state for exposing Powell’s health issues.
“Because of this condition, she is no longer able to have children,” said Findling.
Powell took several vacations with Hill while she was supposed to be working, said Zon. Hill called in to the sheriff’s office from the road to say Powell was on paid administrative leave so she could continue to draw a paycheck, prosecutors allege. Powell testifed that she suffered from fibroid tumors and was in extreme pain for two years before undergoing corrective surgery in November 2008.
Findling also ridiculed the state for not getting state or federal agencies involved in the Hill investigation. He picked up his cell phone and pretended to make a call.
“Yes, GBI? We need some help in investigating the sheriff,” said Findling. “Did they do that? No way, baby. They were using the criminal justice system to investigate the sheriff. Who else can you call? The U.S. Justice Department? The FBI, if you think John Gotti over here, Whitey Bulger over here, John Grisham’s ‘The Racketeer’ over here taking some gas.”
Findling said the motive behind Hill’s prosecution had its beginning in January 2005 when Hill fired 27 deputies on his first day in office.
“He came in here and made some changes and pissed some people off,” he said.
Findling also said Kimbrough was upset when Hill announced his candidacy in early 2011.
“He decides to make himself relevant again,” said Findling. “You made a boo-boo, sir. We’re going to take you down, sir, using this system to bully people for less than $1,000 in gas and other things.”
Findling told jurors that Kimbrough spent about $400,000 to have 11 investigators follow Hill for 48 weeks leading up to his being indicted in January 2012.
Findling drove home his assertion that Hill did nothing wrong by walking over to him, putting his arm around his shoulder and holding up the badge Hill wears around his neck.
“He was entitled to use the cars, he was entitled to go away, he was using a county car he was entitled to use and using gas he’s entitled to use,” he said.
Zon was not as forgiving during her closing argument.
“The defense says no one was hurt and that’s hard to quantify,” she said. “It’s not a massive million dollar theft but this is about our whole system. It means something, just like that badge means something. We stand for something in this system. I hope you don’t think this is a waste of your time and that you send a message. Do the right thing and you’ll sleep well at night.”
Zon turned the defense arguments around on Hill.
“Maybe he went to one of your neighborhoods, maybe he kicked a drug dealer out, that doesn’t matter,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if he did that, that’s not the issue. We’re trying the case on whether he took the money that belonged to the county.”
She also reminded jurors that Hill forced witness Naomi Nash to take an Apple MacBook from her 16-year-old daughter and return it for money that was refunded to Hill. Hill had paid Nash $15,000 from campaign donations for work she did as his campaign manager but within two weeks, the money was funneled out of her bank account into Hill’s hands, said Zon.
One example of that involved Nash’s birthday gift to her teenage daughter.
“He made her go to her daughter’s house to get that laptop back from her,” said Zon. “For any woman to break her daughter’s heart on her 16th birthday because Hill gets mad at her? Nice guy.”
Nash used part of what she believed to be her salary to buy the $1,949 laptop plus accessories and two-year warranty, she testified. When Hill made her return the items, she kept about $160 in refunds for the accessories and warranty but Best Buy mailed the $1,949 refund check for the laptop to Hill.
By Hill’s own actions, said Zon, his intent was to filter the campaign money from Nash for his personal use. Witnesses also testified to $7,000 in campaign donations that Hill took and filtered into the accounts of two corporations only he could access.
“This is a paper trail case,” she said. “This is evidence that can’t be contradicted. He added an extra layer of security, to launder it, funnel it, laundering money through his account. He’s not charged with this but this is evidence that shows Hill’s intent. He wanted to get by and make a living by anyone and any means he can, suck on other people like a leech. Naomi Nash, he uses and abuses on these trips, makes her return her daughter’s computer.”
Zon also slammed Findling’s position that Hill allegedly violating his oath of office is no big deal.
“It’s a joke, right?” said Zon. “Should it be taken seriously? He didn’t do what he said he was gonna do. That’s not just breaking a promise, it’s breaking the law. He took above and beyond his salary from this county.”
Jurors were expected to begin deliberating the 27 felonies Wednesday afternoon. It is unclear what will happen if Hill is convicted. Under the law, he becomes ineligible to hold office and an interim sheriff would have to be appointed.
It is also unknown if he would be taken immediately into custody, be sentenced right away or if sentencing would be delayed. Hill’s attorneys could ask that he be allowed to remain out on bond. If Judge Albert Collier denies that request, it is not expected that Hill would be held in the Clayton County Jail awaiting sentencing.
Hill is also expected to appeal any conviction and could have the right to demand a new trial.