The felony racketeering case against Victor Hill, Clayton County's former sheriff who is currently seeking re-election, has been delayed for possibly as long as a year, but Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon, the special prosecutor on the case, said she will respect the court's wishes and believes several important issues in the case should be examined by appellate courts before moving forward.
Hill served as sheriff of Clayton County from 2005-2008. During his controversial term, several of his actions were questioned, including the immediate firing of 27 employees, who were escorted from the building, while snipers were positioned on the roof and his decision to stop coming in to work after losing the 2008 primary.
Hill was indicted in January on 37 felony charges, including four counts of racketeering, theft, violating his oath of office and trying to influence a witness. He is accused of using both the office of the sheriff and 2008 re-election campaign funds for his own personal benefit. The indictment alleges that Hill used county cars and county-issued credit cards for vacations (where a female staff member reported joined him).
Five charges against Hill were dismissed recently by Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier, including two racketeering and three theft by taking charges involving campaign money. Zon filed notice that she would appeal the decision, delaying the trial, which was scheduled to begin Nov. 26, because of the new hearings that will be required.
"I respect the Court's ruling; I just think this is an area of law that needs further clarification," said Zon in an email Saturday. "If the Court of Appeals upholds the Judge's ruling, I will accept that decision as well and go forward with the prosecution on the remaining counts in the indictment. The legislature will know that there is a major loophole in our laws that needs to be addressed.
"As with any prosecution of a case, I have to consider both the practical considerations of presenting the evidence, i.e. if witnesses will be available, whether the defendant is in jail awaiting trial (which here he is not), but also the legal ramifications of going forward with the evidence and the charges in the indictment. Generally speaking, it is optimal to go forward in as expeditious manner as possible. Here, however, I believe this is a very important issue that needs to be examined by the appellate courts, both for this particular case, but also for the principle of the issue for all future prosecutions of the same kind. I cannot control the timeline in terms of the election, nor is that my job as a prosecutor, sworn to uphold the law and prosecute violations of the law, to put my responsibility and duty to the citizens second to the political considerations," Zon said.
One of Hill's defense attorneys told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the decision to appeal suggests the prosecution is stalling because the dismissal of the five charges suggests there is no case.
"Without the five counts that were dismissed by the judge, their case was gutted like a fish," Musa Ghanayem told the AJC.
When asked about Ghanayem's comments, Zon said, "Generally speaking, I don't comment on remarks made by the defendant's attorneys because I am ethically bound as a prosecutor not to make comments to the media that might influence the outcome of the case."
The delay of the trial could mean that Hill will take office while under a felony indictment, should he defeat a write-in candidate in the November election.
However, the Police Office Standards and Training Council have said previously that Hill would not be certified if under indictment. Should he win, Governor Nathan Deal will be asked to remove him from office until the criminal case can be resolved, according to the AJC.
Georgia law says the governor can remove a sheriff by appointing a committee of two sheriffs and the attorney general to determine if a troubled sheriff should be suspended. Even if the panel recommends removal, the decision is up to the governor. Zon said that the law does prohibit a sheriff from serving if he is a convicted felon.
When asked if the thought of Hill being sworn in, should he win, weighed heavy on her mind, Zon said that her job was only to prosecute.
"The citizens of Clayton County elected the defendant. My job is to prosecute violations of the law. I cannot allow political considerations to influence the carrying out of my responsibilities. My job is to focus on the evidence in this case. I recognize that this is important to the people of Clayton County and that the news media is interested in this case because of the situation.
"However, I have been prosecuting cases for 12 years without cameras and media sound bites in the same way I will this one. This prosecution has generated a lot of attention but that doesn't affect what I must do one way or the other."
If convicted, Hill could get up to 535 years in prison.