The most shocking thing that Liz Garbus saw during the course of making “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” was when Nick Hillary, the man being tried for Phillips’s murder, chose to have a bench trial (tried before a judge) rather than a jury trial. “All of his lawyers were advising him against it. They told him with 12 jurors, all you need is one to say, ‘I don’t think he did it.’ But with one judge, you have to convince 100% of that one judge,” she details in our recent webchat (watch the video above).
But Hillary remained convinced that his best shot at a fair trial that would be based on the evidence and not on emotion would be the bench trial. “His lawyers felt like [they] had just lost. This man is going to prison. It’s over. And Nick insisted and it’s his decision. I had never seen that particular decision go down and it was fascinating.”
“Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is an HBO documentary that examines the murder of Phillips, a 12-year-old boy, in rural Potsdam, New York. Local law enforcement zero-in on Hillary as their primary suspect. Hillary, of Jamaican descent, is a soccer coach at one of the colleges in the town and is an ex-boyfriend of Phillips’s mother, Tammy. As efforts ramp up to charge Hillary with the murder, questions arise over how solid a suspect he actually is. Garbus has won and been nominated for numerous awards over her career including two Emmy wins for non-fiction programming (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” in 2007 and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” in 2015) and two Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature (“The Farm, Angola USA” in 1998 and “Miss Simone” in 2015).
One of the fishiest parts of the prosecution’s case against Hillary was the motive that they put forward. “They posited that Nick had to get rid of Garrett in order to get Tandy back. It’s pretty ludicrous on its face. Eliminating a child of a lover thinking that she might take you back at that point feels like a real stretch for a person who has acted quite rationally all his life,” Garbus says. The crux of putting Hillary and Phillips in the same area came down to a turn that Hillary made in his car after Phillips had left a parking lot. Garbus points out that it should take more than misremembering why a turn was made to put someone in prison for the rest of their life. “You really have to have more than that but that’s really what they went to town with as their smoking gun.”
While Garbus did initially discover the case of Phillips’ murder through The New York Times, she actually found a lot of information through the work that had been done by local journalists. “There was a reporter there who… was following this case and trying to understand what evidence did the county have against this man. It seemed that they had a lot of stories and interest in him but really couldn’t quite nail what the evidence was,” she explains. Through the growing local coverage, the story was eventually picked up by the Times and served as a startling example of the importance that local news reporting still serves, even though it is a dying breed. “The New York Times would have never gotten wind of this story had these local journalists not been covering it and that would have been a real detriment to justice.”
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