By NADINE MATTHEWS

Special to the AmNews

Potsdam, N.Y. is the kind of town where Confederate flags fly without notice. Near the Canadian border, about a third the size of New York City, and with a population of 17,000, Potsdam is also the town at the center of the upcoming HBO documentary “Who Killed Garrett Phillips.” Airing July 23 and 24, it’s a true crime story with heavy racial overtones where women play significant roles in its development and unfolding.

Phillips was a white 12-year-old found near death on Oct. 24, 2011, in the apartment he shared with his mother Tandy Cyrus and younger brother Aaron. Alone at the time, he was brutally strangled, and died at nearby Canton-Potsdam Hospital just two hours later.

Though it did appear that a suspect jumped through the window from the second floor apartment to make his escape just minutes after committing the crime, police recovered DNA under Garrett’s nails and finger prints.

Cyrus’ ex-live in boyfriend Oral “Nick” Hillary, a Black Jamaican immigrant and soccer coach at nearby Clarkson University, was almost immediately a person of interest. No other leads were followed up. Hillary, according to the documentary, had a contentious relationship with the 12-year-old, who was teased because his mother was in a relationship with a Black man. Cyrus reportedly broke off the relationship for this reason.

Though he was an ex and not close to the family or Cyrus’ friends, the documentary shows Hillary received a death notice from Lead Detective Mark Murray hours after Phillips’ passing. Hillary was asked to come to the police station 48 hours later. In footage of that combative interview, Hillary was strip-searched in Murray’s office in front of a number of police officers. Photos were taken of his entire body, including genitals.

The footage also shows that many of the questions during the interview were about Hillary’s ex-girlfriend. They were curiously prefaced with statements about how attractive she was. Police also kept all of Hillary’s clothing. After many protestations, footage shows he was only allowed to go home almost 10 hours later, wearing a Hazmat suit.

Journalist Natasha Haverty did extensive reporting on the case for North Country Public Radio and its corresponding website. Proving race did not impact people’s perceptions, she reports in “Who killed Garrett Phillips” that, everytime the site ran a story having anything to do with the case, they had to shut down the comments due to “The most hateful speedch people capable of.”

Tandy Cyrus’ “voice” throughout the documentary and the case itself is scarce, though her image seems omnipresent. “Who Killed Garrett Phillips” has two brief clips of her being interviewed on TV. The police station footage shows Cyrus, the morning after Phillips’ death, with hands entwined with those of John Jones, the boyfriend she had prior to getting into a relationship with Hillary.

There are no objections from Cyrus that Hillary couldn’t have committed the crime. There are no inquiries as to what evidence led the police to the conclusion that he might have. She simply goes along with all Murray and Jones, a white deputy sheriff, say. We do see some of Cyrus’ words in the form images, complaints Cyrus filed against Jones in the immediate aftermath of their breakup where she declared his actions at the time made her fear for her and her children‘s lives.

Shanna Hillary is the eldest of Nick Hillary’s five children. Fourteen at the time of the murder, she was one of his two alibi witnesses. Shanna testified that Hillary was home with her at the time that Phillips was being assaulted.

The other women who play significant parts in shaping Hillary’s fate are Mary Rain and Hillary’s eldest of five children, Shanna, who was 14 at the time of the murder. One of his two alibi witnesses, Shanna testified that Hillary was home with her at the time that Phillips was being assaulted.

A win at any cost type prosecutor reminiscent of New York City’s Linda Fairstein, Mary Rain wasn’t district attorney at the time of the murder. That person was Nicole Duve, who refrained from indicting due to lack of evidence. The DNA was tested twice and could not be conclusively linked to Hillary. The fingerprints had been tested against forty people, including Hillary. None were matches. Rain, previously put on administrative leave in her position as St. Lawrence County public defender, ran for DA in 2013 promising to get “justice for Garrett.” The town had already made up its mind who needed to be brought to justice and, with public support from Tandy Cyrus, Rain won and almost immediately indicted Hillary.

Rain’s first indictment of Hillary was thrown out partly due to her abusive treatment of Shanna during grand jury testimony. She won a subsequent indictment and Hillary’s trial moved forward in 2016. Rain eventually came to be a poster child for prosecutorial misconduct. In 2018, her law license was suspended for two years.

With its in-depth interviews of numerous witnesses, lawyers and law enforcement, including Hillary himself as well as his and Cyrus’ friends and family, perhaps more than anything else, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips” is a documentary that provides gripping analysis of the nuanced ways in which ordinary people aid and abet the corruption of justice every day.