Oral “Nick” Hillary ought to be the epitome of the American Dream. Moving to the U.S. as a teen from Jamaica, he joined the Army and then attended St. Lawrence University, where he was part of the school’s 1999 national championship-winning soccer team. From there, he went on to be a coach at nearby Clarkson, one of a handful of universities in the small community of Potsdam in Upstate New York that he called home. Recently turned 45 and the father of five kids, Hillary is the embodiment of how someone can immigrate to this country, contribute to its wellbeing and enjoy a prosperous, productive life.
But Hillary’s seemingly feel-good story isn’t so simple. Unfortunately, no discussion of Hillary can overlook the events of October 24th, 2011, when Garrett Phillips, a 12-year-old white Potsdam resident, was found dead. The coroner ruled that the boy had died from strangulation and suffocation. Soon, suspicion circled around Hillary, who had recently ended a relationship with Garrett’s mother Tandy. Could the mild-mannered Hillary really be behind such a violent act? The predominantly white town thought so, as did the police.
Hillary eventually stood trial in 2016, which is when Oscar-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) began following the proceedings, spending time with the accused, interviewing him and chronicling his court appearances. He was ultimately found not guilty, but the new HBO documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips? illustrates how scary Hillary’s ordeal had been — and continues to be. He may be a free man, but as he tells me, that doesn’t mean he can simply put those horrendous events behind him.
Over the phone, Hillary is straightforward and earnest, not someone given to verbal flourishes. Quite frankly, he’s not the sort of person who’s normally the subject of a documentary — which makes his difficult situation all the more bittersweet. A soft-spoken man of faith who never sought the spotlight, Hillary may not be a dynamic presence, but he’s gentle and warm, if also still understandably bruised by what he endured. (His civil lawsuit against, among others, St. Lawrence County prosecutors is ongoing.) How he survived the years-long process of being suspected of murder — which included being questioned by distrustful police and virtually blacklisted in Potsdam — is a mystery, and also a marvel.
But he also knows that one judge’s verdict doesn’t allow him an instant return to his old life. Some rifts seem permanent. According to Hillary, Tandy and her family haven’t spoken to him since Garrett’s murder, despite his attempt to reach out after the boy’s body was discovered. In some sense, there will always be a stain attached to his name — a stigma he cannot erase. “I will forever be in a disadvantaged position going forward,” he says simply. During our conversation, he talked about living with racism, the struggle to be a good father while a prison sentence hung over his head and why he doesn’t spend time wondering who did kill Garrett.
The film follows you during 2016, when you awaited trial and then went to court. During that time, how were you feeling about your chances? Did you think you might not be exonerated?
At no point in time did I ever try to gather any negative thoughts in my head. Whether the cameras were around or not, my sole focus was to remain steadfast and continue to fight for my liberty. With that being at the forefront of my entire thought process through the entire ordeal, there was no room for me to start gathering any kind of negative thoughts or doubt. Despite the fact that I knew the magnitude of the circumstances that I was facing, that outlook helped keep me extremely grounded and focused through the whole process.
You were a star athlete. You were in the military. I imagine you’ve developed an ability to block out the negative.
A lot of those traits truly came about over the course of my journey in life. Being a soldier, there’s a certain level of discipline that comes with being a successful military person. Being a coach, you deal with a lot of decision-making, game-changing situations, weighing the pros and the cons. All those experiences — being a veteran, being a teacher, being a coach — truly is what I had to draw upon in dealing with this situation.
Who Killed Garrett Phillips? suggests that racism was a factor in why the community assumed you were guilty. Before his murder, had you experienced much discrimination in Potsdam?
Personally, no — not prior to the incident. Although I’m an African American, I was never viewed by the community as an African American — I was viewed by the community as being a Jamaican, which is a totally different thing. I was accepted because, as they always said to me, “Oh, you’re not African American, you’re Jamaican.” But the moment this situation came to the surface, I was shifted from the “Jamaican” title into the “African-American” title. Then comes all the racism: not being able to go outside without fingers being pointed; I’m being talked about by others; people didn’t want to socialize with me. I mean, this is a small community, and my position as one of the varsity head coaches, everybody pretty much knew who I was — [but after the murder], all those things just went out the door.
Your lawyer tells you after the acquittal, “It’s over, but it’s never over.” Has that been true for you?
We’re three years removed from the trial, and my life isn’t what it was prior to. The fact that I’m not able to go back and rekindle everything I had and everything I was involved in truly symbolizes that it’s not over.
The murder investigation is ongoing. Do the police ever contact you just for help in their search for the killer(s)?
No. And I think you see from the interrogation scene [where the cops try to drag a confession out of him], the police didn’t necessarily need my help. I don’t foresee them calling me to ask for my help. And after what they’ve done to me, I don’t see myself volunteering anymore to be of help.
Until they find the murderer(s), does it feel like you won’t get closure?
What I’d truly appreciate is them trying to [get] justice for Garrett. What they did at the end of my trial — the district attorney said they were no longer going to pursue it, the cops said the same thing, and unfortunately, his family has said the same thing, too — if they don’t want to pursue justice for him, then I don’t see how anyone else is going to convince them to do that. My hope is that they will clear their mind of whatever theory they thought they had and try to see justice for Garrett. [Editor’s note: Earlier this year, St. Lawrence Country’s new district attorney, Gary Pasqua, was said to be following new leads in the case.]
How does it feel that, no matter what happens, some people will simply always believe you killed Garrett?
Well, I don’t know who these individuals are, so I can’t speak to that kind of hypothetical question. My hope is to continue to do what I can from my position to continue to clear my name. My hope is, if there are individuals out there who still have that mindset, after seeing this [film], it will help them to start [changing their mind].
You moved to America as a teenager. You’ve lived here a while. I’m curious how your vision of what America would be like differed from how America is.
Mind you, I was living here for close to 20 years prior to this incident taking place. Having served in the military, traveled, interacting with people from all walks of life, I had a full sense of what this country is about. But I’m passionate about learning new things. Being an educator, one of the things that I live by is to try to learn something new every day. My ordeal wasn’t one of the new things I [wanted] to learn, but I’ve read about [incidents] that were extremely similar to mine. So I know that it wasn’t that far-fetched for something like that to happen. But when it happened at my doorstep and it involves me, it totally becomes more personal. And when things are personal, you have a different view on the situation.
It seems like recapturing your old life simply isn’t possible. You almost have to decide what the new version of your life will look like.
Prior to this incident, if you Googled my name, you would’ve probably seen St. Lawrence University, men’s national championship, all positives. When you do that now, you see things that will turn your stomach. I can’t go on the web and scrub all that information. With that information being out there, it will forever have some sort of adverse affect on me — in every way possible. You apply for a job, they will do their background check. That tells me that I will forever be in a disadvantaged position going forward unless I’m able to eradicate all this negative stuff around my name from the internet. And I don’t even think that’s remotely possible.
Just in terms of making new friends or starting a new romantic relationship, it must be challenging.
Well, you know, that’s true. But the focus for me right now is my kids. That was the biggest thing for me — having to think about not being around my kids. It’s not even something I can even talk about, because every time I think about it, I realize exactly what these guys were trying to do is to take me away from the kids that I love wholeheartedly — and, that, I couldn’t live without.
But the people that were around me for [financial] support, my teammates, my family, my kids, my legal team, alumni, just everyone — those individuals have stayed in my life, stayed in contact, even beyond the trial. People who have gone through similar situations like mine, they don’t just stand up the next day after everything has been settled and pick up from where they had left off. So, to have those individuals still in my life, I’m extremely grateful, even if it’s just to have a friend to talk to on the phone.
I don’t know if you’re religious or spiritual, but in those teachings, there’s an emphasis on being able to forgive those who wrong you. I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t able to do that.
Quite frankly, I have no animosity inside my heart for anyone. I knew if I should pick that burden up of being upset — of being angry at these individuals — I’m only going to be hurting myself in the long run. I’m a person of faith, so what I’ve been doing is praying and asking for forgiveness for them — and asking for continued strength for myself to continue to show them Christ-like love, because that’s the only thing I can offer at this particular moment.
You’re coaching again. What does it feel like to be back doing something that you know?
It’s always good, it’s such a great feeling to be able to work with kids in that environment. I’m back coaching, but I’m [only] coaching at the club level — I’m not at the collegiate level, because of the incident. When you apply, the first thing they do is Google your name, and when stuff like that pops up, nobody wants you to be representing their programs. But I’m happy to be back at the club level. At least this opportunity has begun to help me bring back some sense of normalcy within that particular arena of my life.
Has being part of the film provided any sort of catharsis? Just doing interviews and promoting the movie — does that allow you to heal?
Well, I view it more as a sharing and teaching moment. I had asked myself, “What’s the true purpose for me having been chosen to go through this particular situation?” And the purpose for me is to shed light on a lot of things that I think our nation has been somewhat ignorant to.
When you think about an individual who doesn’t have any oversight, has unlimited power, you oftentimes think about a dictator. DAs in this country are like dictators — they don’t have a [term] limit in office, they don’t have any oversight in their office. The highest office in this country is the presidency — there’s a reason why there’s a term limit, and there’s a reason why there’s oversight put in place. This particular dialogue, I hope, will be the purpose [of] why I’ve gone through this particular dilemma. If we don’t take this situation seriously and create some kind of two-term limit for these offices, as well as put in place some kind of oversight, this kind of situation will continue to perpetuate.
You spent a few months in prison after being charged with Garrett’s murder. Is there anything that someone can learn from that experience?
I learned that I could be encouraging, even in those kinds of situations. While I was incarcerated for those 70 days, one of the things that I tried to do is to share the importance of faith and what it does for an individual. I’m pleased to know that I was able to encourage others to look into the possibility of creating some kind of faith-based belief as they continue to fight their own struggles. But personally, I learned that that’s somewhere that I don’t want to ever be placed again — nor do I wish anyone that I know to end up in that kind of environment.
You knew you were innocent. But whether when you were on trial or being filmed by Garbus, did you feel that you had to “act” innocent? Almost as if to persuade people that you didn’t commit this crime?
Well, the only way I knew how to act was to continue to be myself. And I think with me continuing to be myself, it was an enormous positive for me, personally — but most importantly, it reassured my kids, and it kept my kids focused. They looked to me for the strength, they looked to me for guidance — one thing I couldn’t do during that particular moment is to display any sense of doubt to my kids. That wasn’t an option with this fight that I was up against.
Going through everything you did, plus being a dad at the same time — that sounds like an impossible juggling act.
For me, that was the most challenging part about it — having to leave your kids and can’t explain exactly what you’re leaving to do because (a) they wouldn’t be able to understand; and (b) just the follow-up questions that would come from you trying to explain to them what’s really going on wasn’t something that I was in the position to do at that particular moment. So [I just had to] continue to be myself. It was one of the key reasons for me to be able to hold myself together to fight — it was also the key to keeping my kids steadfast and focused.
Another aspect of a criminal trial that I don’t think people appreciate is the financial toll. How hard did that get?
Oh, it’s devastating. You’re talking about trying to amass every penny that you have, all the while your livelihood has been taken away from you. You’re tapping into your family, your friends, your loved ones to assist you in amassing whatever monetary help they can provide you so that you can assemble the best legal team possible. That’s one of the things you learn about in this country when you’re dealing with situations like this: You also need to have the best of the best, even when you know you’re innocent. And for me, that was the most daunting situation. I’m sitting here, I know I’m innocent, but I have to be digging into the bottom of my 401(k) just to make certain that my liberty isn’t taken away.
And for me, when I talk about “liberty,” I’m not just an average American — I’m an American that has served this country. So I see myself a lot different than an average person who has never picked up arms for this country. [I had] to push through — claw through — to amass every small bit of financial resources just to make certain that I’m here to talk to you today. It was extremely, extremely nerve-racking. I mean, I can’t find words to describe it, but it’s as if you’re surrounded by a plethora of wealth, and you don’t have access to it because you’re not in a position to access it.
The film is called Who Killed Garrett Phillips? Do you spend time thinking about that question?
It’s something that I refuse to do. I know that the powers that have the handle on pursuing this, they refuse to do it. I refuse to waste my time when the individuals who have the green light to do something about it aren’t doing anything about it.
I’m not trying to be selfish here, but being a father of five kids, I have to spend my time now trying to rebuild what they’ve destroyed so that my kids will be able to continue growing, developing and enjoying their childhood as best as possible — even with this situation continuing to loom over them as they get older.