Almost five years ago 12-year-old Garrett Phillips was strangled in his home and died hours later in a hospital in Potsdam, N.Y. Almost immediately, Potsdam police focused in on one suspect, Nick Hillary. Hillary, who is Black, had dated Garrett’s mother, who is white. They had broken up some time before the death, but Hillary was basically the only one considered as a suspect.
The entire town seemed to be against Hillary. Signs plastered the lawns and the roads demanded “Justice for Garrett.” A district attorney ran and won on the premise of prosecuting Hillary for the crime.
Just over a year ago, a good friend and fellow trustee at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University, Sarah Johnson, and her partner, Greg Cornell, told me about this case. She told me to listen to a radio broadcast from North Country Public Radio. Immediately I knew that something needed to be done. It did not add up and it seemed like there was a huge disconnect between the crime, the evidence and the suspect.
Soon after I heard the story and had read everything I could, I reached out to Hillary and to Mani Tafari, a close friend of Hillary’s and an attorney who had been helping in his defense. I asked them to come into the office of the paper.
For some reason that morning, I called my old friend Norman Siegel, the civil rights lawyer and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and I asked him to join me at the meeting. I told him I had no idea why I really wanted him there, but I thought it was important. He said yes, and we met with Hillary later that day.
At that meeting Siegel said he was interested in the case, but he would only continue to pursue it if Earl Ward, a criminal defense attorney, would work with him.
I then left it in the hands of those making the decisions with Hillary and watched as the following year played out. We at the Amsterdam News wrote about the case. The New York Times wrote about the case. ABC, NBC, HBO, ESPN and the entire media alphabet began to watch the case and began to pay attention to how a major murder case in a small town would play out.
The vitriol on social media, the racial slurs thrown out, the hate spewed towards Hillary were all based upon zero facts and zero evidence.
This case only became national news because Tafari and his wife, Lisa Marcoccia, would not let it fall to the wayside. They knew Hillary was innocent and were going to do everything in their power to see him exonerated. From the moment I met Hillary, I knew he was innocent, too.
When Earl Ward and Norman Siegel made it up to St. Lawrence County for the trial to finally begin after months of motions and hearings, they began to seat a jury. After just a few days it was decided by Hillary to have a bench trial. Bench trials are rare, and in this case, it was a judge from another county, Judge Felix Catena, who was brought in, because the former St. Lawrence County judge, Judge Jerome Richards, had recused himself from the case as he had done with all cases being prosecuted by DA Mary Rain, because he had filed an ethics complaint against her. The trial was supposed to last for six weeks. In fact, it lasted only seven days. With no jury the prosecution could not play into the racism, the fears and the circumstantial evidence that made up their case.
Wednesday morning, after Judge Catena read his verdict, I screamed in relief as I read the Twitter feed from the courthouse. Tears streamed out of my eyes as I realized that, like my father before me, we at the Amsterdam News were once again on the side of right. Judge Catena has done the right thing. Nick Hillary is NOT GUILTY.
You would think that now that this chapter is over that true justice could now be found for Garrett, and that the DA would start to look for the real killer. But that is not the case. DA Rain and the cronies in St. Lawrence County have stated in their private news conference that they are not going to pursue the real killer, because they still believe that their tunnel vision was correct.
So what that leaves us with is a man’s life put on hold for five years, a young boy murdered and a DA who has too much of an ego to say that they were wrong and to start the search for the person or persons who did indeed kill Garrett Phillips.
Until that investigation starts, there can never be justice for Garrett.