Photo via NCPR
On Wednesday morning, police cruisers and news trucks filled the streets of downtown Canton anticipating the announcement of the verdict of Oral “Nick” Hillary, SLU ‘00. Hillary was charged with the 2011 murder of 11-year old Garrett Phillips of Potsdam.
By 10 am on Wednesday, the lobby of the St. Lawrence County Courthouse was packed as attendees were slowly processed through the security checkpoint. Before Judge Felix Catena entered the court-room, the space was filled beyond capacity with relatives of both Garrett Phillips and Nick Hillary, as well as numerous friends and community members.
At approximately 10:15 am, after a brief introduction to the case, Judge Catena uttered two critical words: not guilty. With this statement, Judge Catena brought a close to a five-year saga, which has divided the North Country. In the delivery of his verdict, Judge Catena ex-plained to the court that since the case was based on circumstantial evidence, it had to be scrutinized to a different standard than a trial with DNA or fingerprint evidence.
Over the past four weeks, both sides have presented their arguments about what happened in the apartment of Garrett Phillips’ mother on the night of his death. The trial featured 30 witnesses and up-wards of 100 exhibits, which were considered by Judge Catena. Included among the witnesses for the defense were Rance Davis, who serves as St. Lawrence’s Associate Dean for Student Life, and SLU’s Athletic Director, Bob Durocher. Both spoke of their relationships with Hillary, and highlighted his peaceful and calm attitude, as well as his leadership as the captain of SLU’s Men’s Soccer Team.
Wednesday’s verdict was greeted with applause and exclamations of joy from the members of Hillary’s family who were present in the courtroom. In contrast, the announcement was met with tears and looks of shock from the family of Garrett Phillips. St. Lawrence District Attorney Mary Rain, who has been marred by numerous controversies in recent months, em-braced members of Phillip’s family as others exited the courtroom. Rain has been a central player in the Hillary trial, after making the case a cornerstone of her 2013-election campaign.
At the press conference immediately following the announcement, Nick Hillary addressed reporters and expressed his gratitude to his family, supporters, and legal team. Norm Siegel, who served as one of Hillary’s lawyers, noted that this verdict marks the end of a dark period in Hillary’s life. The accusations against Hillary caused him to be ostracized by the local community, and even his employment was terminated because of the charges. “He is free now,” said Siegel. “[Hillary] can move on with his life, and the system worked here today,” he added.
DA Mary Rain held her own press conference following the verdict. While Rain has played a role in the trial, District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who serves as the DA for Syracuse, argued the majority of the prosecution’s case. Fitzpatrick exited the courtroom promptly, and did not join Rain at the press conference. In her statements to the media, Rain continued to insist that Hillary was guilty and stated that she was devastated by the verdict. Rain made it clear to reporters that although she withheld information from the defense it was a mistake. “What the judge found was that this violation was innocent, it wasn’t malicious,” she stated. According to Rain, the family of Garrett Phillips is still processing the verdict. “They need some time to have a second mourning period,” said Rain. “They lost their 11-year old and now they have no justice.”
Rain’s post-verdict conference caused some controversy among local media outlets, because it was invitation-only. While most press conferences are open to the public, Rain declined to admit a reporter from the Watertown Daily Times because she believed he was too biased in his reporting.
In the coming months, Nick Hillary is expected to continue to fight the Potsdam Police Department in a civil case regarding an alleged violation of his civil rights. Rain continues to insist that Nick Hillary is the only suspect in this case and has announced that she will not continue to investigate the death of Garrett Phillips.
While Hillary’s case has concluded, it has offered little closure to the family of Garrett Phillips. The Justice for Garrett movement has forced the North Country to become divided in this debate over innocence or guilt; now it is time for the community to come together and heal its divisions.