Attorney: Gwinnett County sheriff, others 'subjects' of GJ investigation

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U.S. District Judge Steve Jones presides over pre-trial hearing in case involving the Gwinnett County jail's use of restraint chair on inmates.

The Gwinnett County Sheriff and one of his top commanders are the subjects of a federal criminal investigation into alleged wrongdoing inside the jail.

The revelation comes out of a court hearing where an attorney hired by Gwinnett County tried to convince a judge to put a civil case on hold.

Inmates sued Gwinnett County in 2013, claiming deputies violated policy in the way in which they used restraint chairs. Hundreds of times over the years, members of the jail's elite Rapid Response Team would burst into a cell to take down an inmate, slam them into a restraint chair, cuff their hands and legs and leave them facing a blank wall for as long as four hours.

Sheriff Butch Conway stressed that the chair was never used for punishment. Instead, he claimed it was a necessary tool to prevent unruly detainees from injuring themselves or damaging county property. Like many jails in this country, Gwinnett's deals with a large number of mentally ill prisoners.

"They're being used as a punishment," argued attorney John Cicala. "Not as a deterrent for any type of behavior that needs to be deterred."

Earlier this year, the pending civil suit attracted the attention of the FBI and a federal grand jury. The FOX 5 I-Team already revealed how a grand jury subpoena asked for years’ worth of videos and records involving the Rapid Response Team.

Attorney Thomas Mitchell told the court other attorneys hired by the county have been in contact with the U.S. Attorney's office, and that members of the Rapid Response Team, Sheriff Butch Conway and Lt. Colonel Carl Sims "appear to be the subjects -- not the targets -- of the Grand Jury activities."

Because of that, he asked judge Steve Jones to halt the civil case until the criminal case is concluded. Attorneys for the inmates urged the judge to let the case move forward.

"The people in the civil case have been waiting five years for their day in court and their case is ready to go to trial." said attorney Craig Jones.

The U.S. Attorney's office will not comment on its investigation into the county jail. But the feds have not tried to stop the civil case. And judge Jones offered no indication he would either.

"What do they say? Justice delayed is justice denied?" the judge asked the attorneys. "(The former inmates) have rights, too."

The grand jury subpoena covers all use-of-force actions taken by the Rapid Response Team -- and any internal affairs investigations -- since January 1, 2016.

Attorney Jones suggested in court the grand jury could also be looking at the death of Chris Howard. Last year, the FOX 5 I-Team reported how Howard was left suffering in a holding cell for at least a half hour, despite nurses insisting that he be taken to medical immediately. He went into cardiac arrest and later died. That happened in early 2017. No one was disciplined in the case.

Judge Jones said he would rule later on the request to delay the civil case. Otherwise, he said the case was set to go to trial with the first four plaintiffs.