The question asked in the title of the lengthy two-part HBO documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips? might never be answered, but film maker Liz Garbus focuses all her energy on the man who stood accused of the crime, Oral “Nick” Hillary, mainly because for the longest time he was the only suspect.
In this respect, the story is like the Titanic: if you’ve followed the news you already know the outcome. Also, the name of the doccie is kind of a spoiler in itself. It doesn’t make the events any less chilling.
On October 24 2011, 12-year-old Garrett Phillips was murdered in small-town Potsdam in upstate New York. Attention quickly focused on Hillary, the mother’s ex-boyfriend, who happens to be Jamaican American in a predominantly white small town. It’s a classic case of “arrested for driving while Black”.
Over the next three-plus engrossing hours, the facts are painstakingly dissected. It begins with the interviews – known as “talking heads” – with the neighbours, one of whom called 911 that fateful evening, which established the timeline of the crime.
The police investigating at the time, and Garrett’s own uncle Brian (mom Tandy’s brother) were adamant Hillary was the killer. Why? Because he allegedly held a grudge against the boy for breaking up his relationship with Tandy.
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Means: tick. Opportunity: maybe. But motive?
Armchair sleuths will be familiar with the three things necessary to commit a crime: means, motive, and opportunity. According to interviews and camera evidence, there was a slim opportunity. Means – the cause of death was strangulation, so anyone with hands, basically. But motive? This prong seemed tenuous at best, and if it was thoroughly investigated, it’s not present in this film.
While we might want to know all the events leading up to the murder, it’s a reminder that real life is nothing like CSI.
When cops chase a conviction instead of casting the net wider
The way that facts are presented to us can be highly subjective and manipulated in the hands of skilful editors. So we have to put all our trust in Garbus and how she successfully portrays Hillary as a family man, falsely accused and hounded by a politically power-hungry District Attorney and police who, rather than cast their net wide for other suspects, sat firmly on chasing a conviction for the one they thought best suited their purposes.
Clearly, they have never watched Law & Order, which shows us that the American criminal justice system doesn’t always work in favour of the innocent, and that, if an alternative suspect can be presented to challenge all reasonable doubt, a jury could be swayed.
But in this case, when Hillary finally came to court in 2016 – following a previous Grand Jury indictment which was subsequently dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct – he requested a bench trial: one without a jury, in which the judge considers the evidence to deliver a verdict.
More discussion, new leads, some hope
The case itself remains open, and since the documentary was made, claims of new leads have been made, although, as far as we are concerned, these remain murky and wrapped up in legalese.
As an examination of a legal system that can be at the same time flawed and sound, and a portrait of an astonishingly calm man maintaining his innocence while charged with a heinous crime, this is a tense and chilling education.