After murder trial ends in acquittal of only suspect, community struggles to move on
POTSDAM, N.Y. >> In front of the building at 100 Market St., where a 12-year-old boy, Garrett Phillips, was killed nearly five years ago, a small sign, one of hundreds that once dotted the area, had called for "Justice for Garrett."
But with a two-week trial ending with the acquittal of the lone suspect, the sign was gone Wednesday, even as the glare of scrutiny and suspicion remained.
As dusk began to settle Wednesday evening, police lights once again flashed in front of the building. This time, the drama was fake: a re-enactment was underway for the ABC News program "20/20," one of several national news outlets following the trial of Oral Nicholas Hillary, a former soccer coach at Clarkson University here.
Hillary was accused of strangling Garrett in a fit of rage at the boy over a broken romance with his mother, Tandy Cyrus, in October 2011. The ensuing investigation, arrest and trial were tinged with questions of racial bias and selective prosecution.
In the hours after the not guilty verdict, a mix of relief and resignation seemed to pervade Potsdam, the small village near the Canadian border where the killing occurred. Residents in this riverfront region have long been divided as to Hillary's guilt or innocence, and the verdict, rendered by Judge Felix J. Catena in a nonjury trial, which was requested by the defense, did not seem likely to quell the debate.
"I don't think the judge had another option," said Danielle Melanson, 43, a nurse at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, where Garrett died after being attacked. "And I think all of us will get ours in the end."
Following what was billed as the biggest trial in the history of the state's biggest county — St. Lawrence — the verdict was centered on the prosecution's overwhelmingly circumstantial case, leading Catena to clear Hillary of second-degree murder charges, unleashing expressions of joy from Hillary's camp and agony from the family of the victim.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Hillary, a father of five who had been a suspect from beginning of the investigation, said he still believed race was an issue in his prosecution.
He also expressed gratitude at the verdict. "It is truly a burden that has been taken off my shoulders and that of my entire family," he said, sitting with his legal team, which included two well-known New York City lawyers, Norman Siegel and Earl S. Ward.
Part of the intrigue of the trial came from its curious contours: The state, led by Mary Rain, the St. Lawrence County district attorney, and William Fitzpatrick, an experienced prosecutor from nearby Onondaga County, had readily admitted to having no hard evidence linking Hillary to the crime. There were no witnesses, no fingerprints and no hair or tissue samples. And an attempt to use a cutting-edge DNA method, to analyze a minute sample under one of Garrett's fingernails, was rejected by the judge.
On Hillary's side, the defense had emphasized the lack of evidence, even as the issue of race hung over the case: Hillary is black, while Garrett's mother and most of St. Lawrence County are white. Garrett was white as well.
In a news conference after the verdict was announced, Rain rejected both that notion and the judge's verdict, declaring the investigation into Garrett's death "done" and herself "100 percent certain that Nick Hillary committed this crime."
(Fitzpatrick did not attend the news conference but said in an email Thursday that he did not have much to add. "Just very frustrating that Garrett's last act on earth is to try to identify his killer by scratching him and the proof is not allowed," he said, referring to the disallowed fingernail scraping.)
Hillary, 42, seemed to understand that the verdict would never completely satisfy some in St. Lawrence County and beyond, who will always be convinced that he got away with murder.
"I've been exonerated by the judicial system. I mean, that should be enough, one would think," said Hillary, a Jamaican immigrant who speaks with a soft Caribbean cadence. "But, people will forever be humans. And there's not much more convincing you could do."
At the village's school complex, where Garrett had gone to sixth grade, a small memorial sits near the parking lot. The location was central to the trial; prosecutors said that Hillary had stalked Garrett as he passed by on the afternoon of the killing. Hillary had always contended it was a coincidence, that as a soccer coach he had been there to scout a high school game going on at the time.
On Wednesday afternoon, even as the long rays of the sunset crossed the school's sporting fields, others seemed content. "The only suspect was tried and not convicted," said Bharat Patel, an engineer who grew up in Potsdam. "So that's the best that justice can do."
In an interview, Hillary said he was exploring his options: returning to coaching, perhaps, or trying something else (Siegel has suggested he go to law school.) While Hillary and his girlfriend still have a home in Potsdam, he is, for the well-being of his family, he said, considering leaving the village for good.
He said it will take years to regain "some sense of normalcy," as well as his reputation and his professional footing.
Hillary said he asks that those who doubted him to look at his work as a coach, a member of the community and a father, "and take those pieces and put them in their respective places and make their decision."
Asked about Garrett's family, he said that he was "extremely, extremely sorry for their loss," and that he had not really had a chance "to mourn the loss of a young man that I knew exceptionally well."
Garrett's family was firmly convinced of Hillary's guilt. He had always maintained his innocence. So what, then, did he think had actually happened on that October afternoon at 100 Market?
"It's really hard to say," he said. "Because I've not been able to sit and explore that for the last five years, because of the position that I'm in. So going forward, maybe now, not having to worry about fighting for my freedom, and the legacy of my kids, I will be able to sit down. And do some reflecting for myself."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.