A judge in upstate New York has found former college soccer coach Oral "Nick" Hillary not guilty in the murder of Garrett Phillips, the 12-year-old son of his ex-girlfriend.
Hillary, who had waived his right to a jury and requested a bench trial, hugged his defense team after Judge Felix Catena announced his decision.
Garrett Phillip's mother, Tandy Cyrus, was crying and physically shaking. Garrett's uncle, Brian Phillips shouted, "Karma will get you." One of Nick's supporters said "Thank you, Jesus" in court.
Garrett was found unresponsive on October 24, 2011 in his Potsdam, New York apartment where he lived with his mother and younger brother, who were both not home at the time. The sixth grader had been strangled and suffocated, and was in physical distress. He later died at a nearby hospital.
A neighbor told Dateline NBC she heard a loud crash and moaning coming from the apartment, leading her to call 911. "I knocked on the door and waited a moment," Marissa Vogel told Dateline. "I had the feeling that there was someone on the other side of that door."
When police responded and found Garrett, there was no one else inside the apartment. The police found a window screen had been pushed out, suggesting the killer had escaped the apartment through the second story window.
Suspicion quickly surrounded Hillary, who had dated Garrett's mother Tandy for nearly a year before breaking up months before the murder. He was formally charged with second-degree murder in May of 2014. When the case finally went to trial earlier this month, prosecutors argued that Hillary blamed Garrett for the breakup. However, none of his DNA or fingerprints were found at the scene. Hillary, a father of five, has always insisted he had nothing to do with the murder.
"I have stated that since day one. I am one hundred percent innocent," Hillary told Dateline's Dennis Murphy. "I will continue to fight until I don't have anything left to fight the same way I'm fighting now."
In a statement after the verdict, Nick expressed gratitude to his legal team, supporters, family and teammates. His lawyer Norman Siegel said "sometimes the system does work," and that the "lack of evidence is reasonable doubt" in this case.
The St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain described herself and the family as devastated. "Sometimes there only is circumstantial evidence," said Rain. She said her team was "one hundred percent certain" they had the right man and that there would be no further investigation.