Liz Garbus’s lucid, compelling two-part HBO documentary “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” demonstrates the insidious effect of prejudice on the exercise of justice.
A meticulous investigation of a complex case, it interweaves interviews from witnesses, clips from surveillance cameras, videos of interrogations, recordings of phone calls, and other hard evidence in search of an elusive truth. Like Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” trilogy (1996-2011), it tells the story of a shocking crime and the shocking failure of police and prosecutors to solve it.
On Oct. 24, 2011, a dispatcher in Potsdam, N.Y., got a 911 call from a person reporting suspicious sounds in a neighboring apartment. An officer arrived on the scene and found 12-year-old Garrett Phillips unconscious and unresponsive. Phillips died at the hospital, the cause of death strangulation and suffocation. His death was ruled a homicide.
The police had almost no evidence but they immediately had a suspect. Ignoring other possible leads, they zeroed in on Oral “Nick” Hillary, one of the few black men in this predominantly white town on the Canadian border. A star athlete in college, a veteran, and a respected soccer coach at nearby Clarkson University, he was also the ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus.
Summoned to the police station to comment on evidence, Hillary instead found himself undergoing a brutal interrogation and subjected to a strip search, which Garbus shows in a videotape. But as a friend remarks in an interview, the police were dealing with someone who knew what they were up to and not one of the scared kids from the Central Park Five. Hillary suspected he was being set up and was determined to maintain his innocence.
It didn’t help. The police felt pressure from the shocked community to come up with a culprit, and a black ex-boyfriend served as an ideal scapegoat. Actively pushing this theory and involved in the investigation was another ex-boyfriend, a white sheriff’s deputy and friend of the chief of police, who was reportedly upset about losing his girlfriend to a black man. He would later prove to be a suspect himself.
In the end the district attorney failed to find sufficient evidence to charge Hillary. But that didn’t stop most of the people of Potsdam from concluding that he was guilty. He was ostracized and vilified and lost his job. “It has been the total destruction of everything I’ve worked to build over the years,” he says.
Nearly three years later a new DA, Mary Rain , was elected after running on a promise of making someone pay for Garrett Phillips’s murder. She got a grand jury to indict Hillary, who was arrested and held without bail for over two months. A judge then dismissed the indictment because of “prosecutorial misconduct.” Rain had Hillary indicted again and in 2016 the case was finally brought to trial.
Garbus follows these proceedings closely, building suspense and also outrage at the prosecution’s crass attempts to manipulate witness testimony, distort facts, and offer spurious evidence. But whatever the verdict, Hillary had already lost. A lynch mob might not have taken his life, but the justice system had ruined it. And in so doing it probably allowed the real murderer of a 12-year-old child to go free.
Part one of “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” debuts on July 23 at 8 p.m. on HBO, followed by part two on July 24 at 8 p.m. It is available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.