CANTON — Jeffrey M. Deskovic, then 17, was convicted in 1990 of raping, beating and strangling 15-year-old Peekskill High School classmate Ang…
CANTON — For the second time this summer, north country community members and a national advocacy organization for the wrongfully accused are calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Garrett J. Phillips’ murder.
Garrett, the 12-year-old Potsdam boy strangled to death inside his home on Oct. 24, 2011, would have celebrated his 21st birthday Thursday.
On July 20, the Rochester-based nonprofit It Could Happen to YOU sent an open letter to the St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s Office, requesting a special prosecutor appointment. ICHY Executive Director William C. Bastuk said District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua has not responded to the request.
On the evening of Garrett’s birthday this week, ICHY outlined a second request for a special prosecutor in a news release, and about a dozen people gathered Friday morning on the steps of the St. Lawrence County Courthouse in Canton, calling on state Attorney General Letitia A. James to make an appointment in Garrett’s case.
Signed by Mr. Bastuk, ICHY board members and north country Black Lives Matter organizers, the second request names several individuals and agencies deemed by advocates to have contributed to the “appearance of impropriety” in the still-open homicide investigation. The request identifies the Potsdam Police Department, former Potsdam Police Chief Edward F. Tischler, former Potsdam Lt. and current Chief Mark R. Murray and current DA Investigator Daniel W. Manor Sr., among others, as having conflicts of interest potentially impeding their abilities to conduct an “independent, competent and comprehensive” investigation, Mr. Bastuk said.
The request indicates conflicts may be present in part because of pending lawsuits filed by Oral “Nick” Hillary, the Black man and then-Potsdam resident arrested on a second-degree murder charge in 2014. Mr. Hillary has filed suit against dozens of individuals and agencies, citing illegal conduct related to Mr. Hillary’s arrest and subsequent prosecution.
The Potsdam Police Department remains the lead investigative agency for Garrett’s case.
The north country has long followed the case that brought Mr. Hillary to a bench trial for the murder of the Potsdam sixth-grader, Mr. Hillary’s 2016 acquittal, and the investigation that has yet to result in any convictions. A new lead, not involving Mr. Hillary, was received by police in the fall of 2018 and surfaced last spring, just three months before filmmaker Liz Garbus’ documentary “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” premiered at a festival in the nation’s capital and aired on HBO.
Last month, Mr. Pasqua said leads formulated in the last two years have not resulted in any “actionable information.”
Mr. Bastuk, who traveled to Canton from the Rochester area with ICHY board members Stephen F. Downs, Thomas Hoffman and advisory board member Jeffrey M. Deskovic, said his organization began conversations with attorney general staffers Friday morning and anticipates continued dialogue this week. ICHY requested a meeting with north country Black Lives Matter organizers and Attorney General James to discuss Garrett’s case and “other potential improprieties taking place” among local law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office, though Mr. Bastuk did not comment further on what those improprieties might be.
Mr. Pasqua was not available for comment at the time of this report. He previously told the Times he considers Garrett’s case open, “simply because no one has been convicted.”
Retired Albany-area attorney and former chief attorney for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, Mr. Downs said several state appeals decisions have maintained “even the appearance of impropriety is as devastating in its consequences to the judicial system as the actual impropriety itself.”
“And the Garrett Phillips case is just full of the appearance of impropriety,” Mr. Downs said. “It has gone on and on, and we don’t have an answer to what happened to Garrett Phillips and who perpetrated it.”
The “appearance of impropriety” is positioned in judicial and public official ethics laws at state and federal levels, designed to prevent conflicts of interest from impacting public procedure and litigation.
Even the appearance of such conflicts, provable or not, Mr. Downs said, “destroys the public’s confidence in the judicial system.”
ICHY and a statewide network of prosecutorial conduct and justice reform advocates reflect the lived experiences of people wrongfully accused — and provably wrongfully accused — of major crimes.
Mr. Deskovic was convicted of rape and murder charges in Westchester County in 1990, after providing a coerced confession to police. He was exonerated in 2006 by DNA evidence — after serving 16 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.
Mr. Bastuk was accused of the 2007 sexual assault of a 16-year-old in Monroe County, and was acquitted by a 2009 jury based on exculpatory evidence and an alibi. Since ICHY’s founding after Mr. Bastuk’s acquittal, the organization has worked nationally, seeking justice for those wrongfully prosecuted through the American criminal justice system.
“It was very clear that my case should never have even gone to court,” Mr. Bastuk said. “Yet to this day, there are people who still believe that I just got off, and I still get the smears and the stares. Oral Hillary will face that for the rest of his life, unless the true perpetrator is found and held accountable.”
ICHY and Black Lives Matter organizers maintain Mr. Hillary was more aggressively pursued as a suspect than other leads, including John E. Jones Jr., who was a sheriff’s deputy at the time and continues in that role. Seeking justice for Mr. Hillary, in seeking the truth about what happened to Garrett, is inextricably tied to seeking justice for Garrett, in finding and convicting his murderer, BLM organizer Jennifer Baxtron said.
“It’s about justice for Garrett and for Nick Hillary,” Ms. Baxtron said. “It’s not just for one or the other. It’s for both of them.”
Eight months ago, Ms. Baxtron started a petition calling for all leads related to Garrett’s case to be sent to the state division of the FBI in Albany. Since the death of 18-year-old Gouverneur student Treyanna Summerville in June, Ms. Baxtron added Ms. Summerville’s name to the petition on the online change.org platform, a petition-generating website managed by the for-profit Change.org corporation and used by individuals and organizations worldwide.
Titled “Seeking Truth and Justice in St. Lawrence County for Garrett Phillips, Treyanna Summerville,” the petition has so far garnered 1,671 signatures.
“Seeking Truth and Justice” is directed to a total of six offices and agencies: the office of the state Attorney General, Mr. Pasqua, the FBI, the Potsdam Police Department, Gouverneur Police Department and county Child Protective Services.
Mr. Bastuk said he expects a meeting with the attorney general’s office in the coming weeks and believes “there will be a level of interest in this,” but should ICHY and BLM not receive a response to their request, organizers plan on directly asking the FBI to intervene.