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Nick Hillary's lawsuit against the Potsdam police is finally going to trial

Oral "Nick" Hillary in 2016 Photo: Brit Hanson/North Country Public Radio
Oral "Nick" Hillary in 2016 Photo: Brit Hanson/North Country Public Radio

(North Country Public Radio) - It’s been more than a decade since police in Potsdam, New York first detained Oral "Nick" Hillary in connection with the murder of Garrett Phillips. Hillary was eventually found not guilty in a trial that captivated the region and drew national media coverage.

Hillary’s lawsuit claiming Potsdam police violated his civil rights is finally going to trial Monday in Albany.

On the morning of October 26, 2011, Hillary, then a soccer coach in Potsdam, was summoned to the Potsdam police station. It was two days after 12 year-old Garrett Phillips was found strangled to death in his home in Potsdam.

Hillary was considered a suspect because he was an ex-boyfriend of the boy’s mother. Police detained Hillary for hours, took his car and cell phone, and subjected him to a strip search – even though they didn’t get a warrant until later that evening. The police chief at the time later admitted no one else had been strip-searched there in 20 years.

Meanwhile, another ex-boyfriend of the boy’s mother, sheriff deputy John Jones, wasn’t detained at all – even though he was still considered a suspect at the time. In fact, he helped police with the investigation and held the mother’s hand while police interviewed her the day after her son’s death.

This disparity, and the fact that Hillary is Black and Jones is white, is at the heart of Nick Hillary’s civil lawsuit that goes to trial in Albany Monday. Hillary alleges false arrest, unlawful search, and execution of fraudulent search warrants. It names the village of Potsdam, police chief Mark Murray, who was then the lead investigator in the case, and the former police chief and his lieutenant.

The defense argues police had probable cause to detain Hillary. According to the Watertown Daily Times, it also says the judge should consider DNA evidence that wasn’t allowed at the murder trial.

Hillary was acquitted after that dramatic and tense bench trial in 2016. Police still haven’t produced any physical evidence connecting Hillary to the crime scene.

And Garrett Phillips’ murderer still hasn’t been found.

Copyright 2022 North Country Public Radio.