Photo courtesy of NCPR
October 24th will mark the five year anniversary of the death of Garrett Phillips, a 12-year-old resident of Potsdam. Today, lawn signs commemorating his alleged murder are found dotting the roadside of Route 11 and standing starkly in front of homes throughout St. Lawrence County. “Justice for Garrett” has become both a rallying cry of a grieving community and call to action from political candidates.
Over the past five years, the events surrounding the death of Garrett Phillips have led to numerous controversies, and attracted the attention of national media. In the past six months, The New York Times has published two extensive articles on the case. On Tuesday, after years of debate, the trial began to determine if the key suspect in the case, Oral “Nick” Hillary St. Lawrence ’00, is guilty or innocent of carrying out Phillips’ murder.
A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Hillary first came to the North Country when he enrolled as a student at St. Lawrence. A member of the 1999 SLU Men’s Soccer Team, which won that year’s NCAA championship, Hillary was named as Upstate Collegiate Athletic Association’s Player of the Year. He is now facing charges for the killing of his ex girlfriend’s son, Garrett Phillips.
Both supporters and skeptics have criticized the investigation into the death of Garret Phillips. Some have argued that Hillary’s conviction was prompted by his race and his romantic involvement with the ex-girlfriend of a St. Lawrence County Sheriff ’s deputy. Meanwhile, supporters of the “Justice for Garrett” movement have voiced their concern in the continued delays that have occurred in a case that they view as top priority. In 2014, Mary Rain, a candidate for St. Lawrence County District Attorney, created additional headlines when she made “Justice for Garrett” a cornerstone of her campaign, and even campaigned with the mother of Garrett Phillips.
On Tuesday, the St. Lawrence County Courthouse in Canton saw the beginning of what is poised to be a lengthy and carefully observed case. Already the high profile nature of the trial is posing challenges. In order to account for this, 1,000 county residents have been called for jury duty, which is four times the amount of jurors called in a regular case.
This week, attorneys on both sides of the issue have continued to question potential jurors in an effort to locate unbiased individuals who will be able to give Hillary a fair trial. Attorneys have been allocated 30 minutes to question each group of 21 potential jurors. This setup will almost guarantee that jury selection will not be completed until the court reconvenes on Monday.
Additionally, Wednesday’s proceedings saw continued de-bate over the use of DNA evidence in the trial. Judge Felix Catena had previously blocked the use of DNA in the case, as the method used for forensic analysis was inconclusive. This week, however, there were renewed calls to allow the prosecution to incorporate DNA information in their case against Hillary. This week’s events have already received extensive coverage, with articles appearing in the Associated Press and Fox News.
Since Hillary was first accused of second-degree murder in 2014, roughly two and a half years after Phillips was found dead in his mother’s home, St. Lawrence University has found itself frequently mentioned in both media coverage and community gossip.
In October of 2015, it was reported that Sarah Johnson ’82, who serves as member of St. Lawrence Board of Trustees, had assisted Hillary in posting bail, which was set at $200,000. Ac-cording to an interview with the Watertown Daily Times, Johnson had been observing the Justice for Garrett investigation and did not believe that Hillary was being treated fairly by the law.
Along with other members of the SLU community, Johnson has continued to provide funds to support Hillary’s legal team in order to ensure he is given the best legal representation. Johnson has served as a member of the Board of Trustees since 1998. She knew Hillary in his role as Captain of the SLU Men’s Soccer team, and has found him to be a man of good character. On Tuesday, Johnson and her partner were among the few individuals present in the court-room as the trial against Hillary commenced.
In the coming weeks additional details will certainly emerge about the events that led to the tragic death of Garrett Phillips. This case will continue to force the North Country to tackle this controversial topic, while undoubtedly cap-turing the continued attention of national media.
For both continued coverage of the Nick Hillary Trial and additional details on the background of the Justice for Garret case, visit NorthCountryPublicRadio.org or download NCPR’s podcast “Day-by-Day: The Nick Hillary Trial.”