Skip to main content

Culture Documentary

Man of interest



Man of interest

HBO’s Who Killed Garrett Phillips? shows how racism and incompetence can undermine justice

“We got a 12-year-old that’s lost his life. … We gotta lock somebody up.” Those words, spoken by a New York State Police officer, sum up the attitude of law enforcement in HBO’s new documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips? Sadly, the people involved with prosecuting the case don’t seem overly concerned with ensuring they’ve gotten the right “somebody.”

Garrett Phillips was strangled in his apartment in Potsdam, N.Y., not long after he returned home from school on Oct. 24, 2011. From the start, the police focused their investigation on Oral “Nick” Hillary, the ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus. The case might not have attracted national attention if Hillary hadn’t been one of the few black men living in this upstate New York community.

The documentary exposes some racism in the handling of Hillary’s case, but more than anything it depicts the incompetence of a small town’s police department and district attorney’s office. In their quest to “lock somebody up,” they stop asking who killed Garrett Phillips and simply assume Hillary did.

But the more we watch, the less we seem to know, and by the end it seems impossible to know who killed Garrett. The documentary shows how slim the evidence was against Hillary and the lengths officials went to in their attempt to convict him anyway. It shows the difficulty of finding justice: Nick Hillary was railroaded—does that mean this kind of thing is happening all over the country? Could there be others like Hillary whose cases don’t receive national attention because they lack a racial element?

Rated TV-MA, Who Killed Garrett Phillips? isn’t easy to watch. We see accusers talk about Hillary with the foulest of language. We see police strip-search Hillary in an apparent attempt to humiliate him. We see the emotional toll the Potsdam tragedy exacts from everyone involved. But Christians should consider how to work toward improving justice in our communities, and should remember to trust ultimately in God, whose justice will resolve all our unanswered questions.