POTSDAM, N.Y. (AP) — The trial of a former college soccer coach accused of strangling his former girlfriend’s 12-year-old son in October 2011 starts this week and may result in a verdict, yet it will likely do little to quell the five-year controversy swirling in this rural village in northern New York.
Some in Potsdam see Oral “Nick” Hillary‘s trial as a chance to finally bring a measure of justice for the family of Garrett Phillips. “Justice For Garrett” lawn signs still stand by roadsides and the case is still talked about often.
“It’s on our minds,” said Vikki Lavean, who works in Potsdam insurance office with a police flyer offering a reward for information in the case. “We feel bad for the family. Hopefully, the mother will get some closure.”
But critics see a largely white community railroading a black man. The critics point to a dismissed indictment, an oft-criticized district attorney and an apparent lack of physical evidence tying Hillary to the apartment.
After defense lawyers appeared in court in nearby Canton on Tuesday, they said the jury selection process scheduled to start Wednesday could stretch into next week as they filter out people who have signed petitions about the case or otherwise expressed opinions.
“There’s a history of visibility in this case, and that’s the challenge that we have,” defense lawyer Norman Siegel said. “Can we find 12 people who are going to be fair and impartial?”
Garrett was found near death in the apartment he shared with his mother and younger brother after neighbors who heard noises called police. He died that night, Oct. 24, 2011.
Police focused on Hillary early on. The Jamaica-born head soccer coach at Clarkson University had first come to northern New York as standout player at St. Lawrence University. Hillary and his teenage daughter had lived with the boy’s mother, Tandy Cyrus, and her two sons until the relationship ended in summer 2011.
The district attorney at the time never bought charges. Things changed after Mary Rain became St. Lawrence County district attorney in 2014. Rain campaigned on a promise to make the Garrett investigation a priority and even appeared with his mother on the campaign trail.
She secured a second-degree murder indictment against Hillary in 2014 that was later dismissed by a county judge. The judge said Rain’s grand jury presentation was marred by expressions of opinion and improperly prepared evidence.
Rain got a second grand jury to hand up an indictment last year.
Rain and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who is helping the prosecution, declined comment Tuesday.
But court documents indicate prosecutors want to show Hillary had a “controlling personality” and blamed the boy for his troubled relationship with his mother. The trial judge last month blocked an attempt by prosecutors to introduce a high-tech “DNA mixture profile” from Garrett’s fingernail scrapings. Prosecutors have filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider.
Hillary, now 42, has consistently said he is innocent. He showed up in court Tuesday in a blue suit and listened intently to his lawyers, but did not talk the media.
His defenders claim police zeroed in on him and overlooked as a suspect a sheriff’s deputy who also had a past relationship with Garrett’s mother. An assistant soccer coach who said he had Hillary over at his house around the time of the murder said police threatened to charge him if he didn’t change his testimony.
As Rain prepared for trial this year, she endured complaints about her overall job performance. County lawmakers in April cited allegation of incompetence and sexual harassment in passing a resolution expressing no confidence in Rain. They asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate Rain, who told reporters last month that it was best for the courts to look into the issue.
A state court Committee on Professional Standards was asked by New York’s association of district attorneys in April to investigate Rain. Court officials said last week they do not comment on whether such investigations are being conducted.
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