Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
(L-r) Hill with attorneys Musa Ghanayem, Marissa Goldberg and Frey.
By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — A Clayton County Superior Court judge has given defense attorneys a week to decide if he should be recused from presiding over the criminal trial of Sheriff Victor Hill.
If they don't approve of Judge Albert Collier, the Aug. 5 trial won't be held, he said.
"Unless there is a waiver of this issue, I'm not proceeding with trial," said Collier Friday morning during a status hearing. "I'm not trying to coerce you but if I'm in a position where my impartiality is in question, I'm not going forward with the trial."
Hill and three of his four attorneys were in court with special prosecutor Layla Zon to go over recently-filed motions and set other dates leading up to the trial. Collier also let them know that 350 jury summons have been sent out with letters admonishing potential jurors to not listen to or read news accounts of the case or discuss the charges with anyone.
Hill faces a 32-count felony indictment mostly related to criminal wrongdoing during his first term in office from 2005 to 2008. He took office under indictment in January.
Collier denied the defense motion to recuse Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson from the case.
"I find no basis provided to factually justify her recusal," said Collier.
Collier outlined his past connections with Lawson and Hill, in the interest of disclosure and so that the attorneys could decide if he could be impartial. He said he worked on cases with Hill when Collier was a prosecutor and Hill was a detective. Collier also noted that, as sheriff, Hill is responsible for his safety and security inside the courthouse.
Zon said that security issue was her only concern.
"But that would be the case no matter who was presiding," she said.
Collier also worked with Lawson when they were both assistant district attorneys under another elected prosecutor and he was part of the process that saw her appointed to Juvenile Court judge after leaving the district attorney's office. Collier and Lawson attend the same church together and sing in the choir, he said.
"I've searched deeply where my impartiality could be questioned but I feel I can be fair and impartial," he said. "I see no need to recuse myself."
Collier left the courtroom so each side could discuss his position. Defense attorney Steve Frey, who spoke for the team Friday, said he didn't immediately see cause for concern. However, the fourth member of the team, Drew Findling, couldn't attend the hearing and might have input, he said.
"We weren't prepared to deal with this today," said Frey. "I don't believe there is a conflict but we'd like some time for due diligence. If we find a conflict, we'll notify the court immediately. We want the case to go to trial Aug. 5. We're innocent and we're ready to move forward."