As an institution, law enforcement’s main goal is to serve and protect. Unfortunately, the past decade has revealed extreme abuses within this system. The country virtually exploded over videos of police killing unarmed men, exposing what could only be called institutional racism. George Zimmerman murdered an innocent teenage boy and was lauded as a hero in his home state. Meanwhile, advances in DNA technology led to the release of numerous prisoners who had been wrongly convicted, and in some cases, the prosecution knew the evidence was faulty, but put people on death row anyway. Ultimately, it seems that if the local community wants to convict you, they will find a way, and it can happen to anyone of us at any time. Director Liz Garbus explores this frightening reality in her two-part HBO documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips?
“…bumbling hicks who never cared if he was actually innocent or guilty and just wanted to see him convicted…”
In the small town of Potsdam, New York, near the Canadian border, the body of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips was found in his apartment on October 24, 2011, after neighbors heard some disturbing noises and called the police. Immediately, suspicion fell on Oral “Nick” Hillary, the Jamaican-born ex-boyfriend of the boy’s mother, who happened to be one of the only black residents in the community. Hillary coached soccer at a local university, had served in the military and was generally known around town as a nice, happy guy. The problem was, a local police officer of dubious character, John Jones, had dated the same woman previously and was not thrilled with the interracial arrangement so to speak. With nothing to go on except some flimsy coincidental evidence, the local government built case against Hillary and the community ostracized him. It was now up to him to prove his innocence when the entire town wanted to see him, for lack of a better word, lynched.
Now, it’s obvious that Garbus has chosen a side in this matter, and the documentary should be viewed with that in mind. We spend a lot of time with Hillary and his family and watch as the looming trial eats away at him. Interviews with the police, prosecution and local residents make them out to be bumbling hicks who never cared if he was actually innocent or guilty and just wanted to see him convicted in some sort of twisted “Justice for Garrett,” which became a movement, not to find who killed the boy, but to convict Hillary.
“…one day, you may wake up and find the world you know has turned against you…”
That said, the evidence is extremely flimsy, and it’s hard to believe that a seasoned detective would build a case this way without having an agenda. It seems as soon as Hillary’s name was mentioned, the blinders went on and they never considered for a second that maybe he had nothing to do with it. Ultimately, this is the saddest revelation in the film: nobody cares about the truth, they care about putting this man, who frankly doesn’t seem capable of hurting a fly, let alone his ex-girlfriend’s kid, in prison.
There isn’t much we can do when the state decides it wants to put us away. Too often, the system tasked with protecting and serving abuses its power simply because it can. Remember this when watching Who Killed Garrett Phillips? – one day, you may wake up and find the world you know has turned against you because you like different music or your economic status isn’t up to par, or you have the wrong color skin. Until we cut this cancer from our society, there will never be justice for Garrett Phillips or thousands of other victims.
Who Killed Garrett Phillips? (2019) Directed by Liz Garbus. Written by Karen Sim. Starring Oral “Nick” Hillary, Brian Phillips, and John Jones.
8 out of 10 stars