CANTON, N.Y. — A black former college soccer coach accused of killing his ex-girlfriend’s 12-year-old white son in a largely white upstate town was found not guilty Wednesday by a judge.
Oral “Nick” Hillary hugged his lawyer and cried as Judge Felix Catena ruled against prosecutors who relied on circumstantial evidence to bring a second-degree murder charge against Hillary in the October 2011 killing of Garrett Phillips. He was accused of choking the boy to death in an apartment in Potsdam, a small college town near the Canadian border.
Hillary’s lawyers argued during the nonjury trial that the case was “riddled with doubt” and repeated the claims of critics who said authorities in the overwhelmingly white community unjustly prosecuted him.
Outside of court, Hillary thanked his lawyers and supporters while defense lawyer Norman Siegel said his client can finally move on after living “under this cloud for five years.” Hillary did not take questions.
St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain said at a separate news conference afterward that race had nothing to do with the prosecution, which she still felt was justified.
“There will be no search for anybody else,” she said. “He was the only person that committed this crime. I’m 100 percent certain of that.”
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who helped Rain prosecute the case, told Syracuse.com that it’s “hard to see a killer walk out of court, but I have tremendous respect for Judge Catena. I know he deliberated fairly.”
Hillary was born in Jamaica and first came to northern New York as a standout player at St. Lawrence University. At the time of the killing, he was the head soccer coach at Clarkson University. He and his daughter had lived with Tandy Cyrus and her two sons until the relationship ended in summer 2011.
While prosecutors lacked DNA or fingerprint evidence, Fitzpatrick said during closing arguments that he had made a strong case based on evidence that included security camera footage showing the movements of the boy and Hillary on the streets of Potsdam right before the killing.
After the verdict was read in court, Rain stood in front of the family section and said, “I’m sorry.” The boy’s relatives sobbed after the verdict.
The family left the heavily guarded courthouse without speaking to reporters.
The district attorney at the time of the killing never brought charges.
Rain campaigned on the case, though the first murder indictment she secured was dismissed by a judge. She was able to get the current indictment last year.