Trial begins for man accused of murdering ex-lover's son
CANTON, N.Y. >> An unexpected midnight visit. A series of small lies. And a left turn, instead of a right, following the trail of a 12-year-old boy.
These were the ominous contours of the state's case presented by the prosecution on Monday against Oral Nicholas Hillary, who is accused of stalking and strangling the boy, Garrett Phillips, in a fit of murderous pique nearly five years ago in Potsdam, N.Y.
Prosecutors have proffered a sinister motive: that Hillary, the former soccer coach at Clarkson University, had killed the boy to punish his mother, Tandy Cyrus, for breaking up with him after her two sons, and particularly Garrett, said they did not like him.
"I wasn't going to stay in a relationship," Cyrus, 38, testified on Monday, "where my kids were unhappy."
Hillary, 42, who goes by Nick, has steadfastly denied the charges against him, suggesting that his prosecution is based, in part, on a single fact: his race. Hillary, a former soccer standout at nearby St. Lawrence University, is black; the victim was white, as is most of St. Lawrence County, the rural upstate redoubt where he is being tried.
It is a claim bolstered by a lack of concrete evidence placing Hillary at the crime scene — no fingerprints; no witnesses; no video; no hair, fiber or tissue samples.
But in opening statements, prosecutors said they intended to bleed Hillary of credibility with "a constellation of facts that independently don't prove his guilt," but can only lead to one conclusion.
"The only reason he has to lie," said William Fitzpatrick, who is leading the state's case, "is because he was choking the life out of this kid."
The importance of the case, which is thought to be the biggest trial in the history of St. Lawrence County, was underscored by the involvement of Fitzpatrick, a respected prosecutor from Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse.
Fitzpatrick's assertions were batted back by the defense team, led by the prominent civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who said the death of a child naturally leads to a desire for closure and justice.
"But it must be the right person," Siegel said. "Nick Hillary is not the right person."
Garrett was murdered in his mother's apartment in October 2011, moments after coming home from a late afternoon basketball game at the village's school complex, less than a mile away.
The prosecution's case, as outlined by Fitzpatrick, will use video from the complex that shows Garrett passing by as Hillary's car sits in an adjacent parking lot. Hillary's car then briefly follows the boy — turning left, away from his home and toward Garrett's apartment — something Fitzpatrick called "the most conclusive piece of guilt against this man."
"The camera doesn't lie: Mr. Hillary doesn't turn right, he turns left," Fitzpatrick said. "Because he's hunting Garrett Phillips."
Fitzpatrick is assisting the St. Lawrence County district attorney, Mary E. Rain, who was elected in 2013 after a campaign in which she vowed to bring attention to Garrett's murder, and made appearances with his mother. Still, Rain has been criticized in some quarters for her handling of the case — an earlier indictment of Hillary was thrown out for prosecutorial misconduct — as well as a series of embarrassing episodes, which led to the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators passing a resolution expressing no confidence in her last spring.
In early moments of the opening argument, Fitzpatrick addressed both the mistakes made by law enforcement and much of the media attention given to the case, which has drawn national coverage to Canton, the St. Lawrence County seat, just about 10 miles from Potsdam, the small riverfront village where Garrett lived with his mother and half brother, Aaron.
Fitzpatrick said: "The narrative of this case up to this point has been very, very simple: A group of bungling incompetent cops from a small town in upstate New York on a razor-thin amount of evidence brought a case against a man, perhaps insidiously motivated, by the color of his skin. Great TV, great theater. The problem is that narrative, judge, is completely 100 percent false."
Fitzpatrick was speaking to Judge Felix J. Catena, who agreed last week to hear the case by himself after Hillary requested a bench trial. Ten jurors, all white, had already been selected but were released. (Catena, a judge from Montgomery County, took on the case after a previous judge, Jerome J. Richards of St. Lawrence County Court, recused himself after filing an ethics complaint against Rain.)
The scene in the courtroom on Monday was somewhat tense as members of Hillary's family — first- and second-generation Jamaican immigrants — sat on opposite sides of the stalls from members of Garrett's family.
Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, did not bring race into his presentation to Catena, focusing instead on the lack of evidence tying Hillary to the case.
"Not one of the people who will walk through the doors of this courtroom and sit in that chair will say, 'I saw Nick Hillary kill Garrett Phillips,' " Siegel said. "And why? Because it didn't happen."
He also offered a few intriguing new details about the investigation, including an assertion that a police dog brought to the crime scene — a rundown apartment building on Potsdam's main drag — picked up a scent that led away from Hillary's location and toward the Raquette River, which bisects the village. But police "zeroed in on Nick Hillary," Siegal said, with little consideration of other suspects.
Hillary and Cyrus met and began dating in 2010, and quickly moved in together. But according to Cyrus, Hillary did not take the breakup well. She described him as overbearing and obsessive, though she conceded on Monday that the two continued to speak and exchange text messages — and on one occasion had intimate relations — after she moved out.
Cyrus, the prosecution's first witness, described one moment in which Hillary entered her apartment uninvited, although he had a key. "I woke up around midnight and he was standing in my bedroom," Cyrus recalled, saying she was angry at the incursion. Still, she said he merely slept there, and left in the morning. She soon asked for, and received, the key.
Cyrus, largely composed and placid on the stand, became emotional when discussing her trip to the hospital after Garrett was discovered strangled in her apartment. "I went into the emergency room and the doctor came out to talk to me," she said, saying the doctor wondered initially whether the boy might have harmed himself.
There were marks on Garrett's neck and he was bruised, she said. "He told me Garrett was in full cardiac arrest," Cyrus recalled, adding she then "went into the room that Garrett was in and Garrett died."
Testimony was expected to continue on Tuesday.