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Murder and Identification in Small-College-Town America

July 31, 2015

You have not heard of this Potsdam.

It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. This Postdam, the German one, is a little more famous, what with the Prussians and Kaisers and palaces.

But Potsdam, NY, a pretty little college town nestled in the shadow of Ottawa and the foothills of the Adirondacks, that unthaws for just long enough to cut the grass a few times before the first freeze, has recently gotten some attention. And as P.T. Barnum famously said, “All publicity is good publicity!”


Unfortunately for Potsdam, this publicity is due to a homicide. And this particular homicide could not have been more perfectly constructed to shake a community to its core. The 2011 case revolves around the unsolved death by strangulation of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips. The accused and indicted suspect in the case is Nick Hillary, the one-time boyfriend of Phillip’s mother. For more information on the basics of the investigation, look here.

Sad as it is, when described as above, this may not seem like such an exceptional case. Certainly, the death of a child is without a doubt the most lamentable tragedy that may befall a family or community. And when the child was possibly murdered, that adds emphasis and notoriety to an already exceptionally heartbreaking circumstance. But what is perhaps most notable for rhetorical study is the way in which the case and other cases like it are framed beyond the bare-bones facts.

Let’s try a few of the frames, omitted from the above description, which may help to explain why the investigation has garnered so much publicity for Potsdam.

  • “The victim, a blonde haired, blue eyed, Caucasian boy. The key suspect, an African American adult.”
  • “The victim, the son of a family with ties to the local community stretching back generations. The key suspect, a Jamaican transplant.”
  • “The victim, a Potsdam Middle School 8th grader. The key suspect, a University Head Soccer Coach.
  • “The victim, a joyous but frightened child. The key suspect, a strict and vengeful ex-lover of the child’s mother.”

In terms of ways to frame the case, and the victim/suspect relationship, you can take your pick of themes: race, xenophobia, town and gown divisions, domestic friction.

Any number of media outlets can present the story in any number of ways, just as the prosecution has attempted to do in the case built against Hillary. The trial, which has been dismissed once already by a judge for lack of adequate foundation and bullying a witness, has recently been resumed in earnest. Complicating the case further is Potsdam’s divided population, where a predominantly white citizenry and police force of 17,000 swells by more than half again with college students and faculty from two separate campuses (SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University), both of which are growing increasingly diverse racially, politically, and economically.

If the case sounds familiar, it’s because you own a television or have access to the internet, where instances like those of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, to name a few, are commonplace in discussions. But while this instance shares some commonality with these cases, Potsdam has perhaps garnered less attention because of the sheer volume of unknowns surrounding the case. No consistent video evidence, no DNA or fingerprints, no real motive for any suspect, no police brutality.

And without a clear scapegoat, the opinions surrounding the case become even less stable (rhetorically speaking) than those instances mentioned above, and raise a host of questions. Who gets to frame this case? As the years stretch out from 2011, is it a good thing to keep the public constantly engaged in the tension of the criminal proceedings? And, even if a conviction comes down, appeals are almost certain to follow, so who gets to claim justice with any degree of certainty?

This type of prolonged and divisive publicity leaves a community open to sustained rhetorical attention and argumentation. And while it might be said that it opens up an opportunity for public discourse, especially surrounding topics like race relations and town/university interaction, it may also have the opposite effect, pushing people to identify with one interpretation of the case or another. Or worse, force them to personally identify with one group or another, as in, As a white woman with roots in the community, I feel it’s my duty to… or As a tenured professor with insights beyond this narrow community it seems obvious that… which lead only toward community fragmentation and away from cohesive discussion.

With a new trial date set for November, the town of Potsdam will have to endure at least another year of unwanted publicity. And while it remains to be seen how the town will handle the diverse and profound issues and undercurrents that the case represents, we do know two things for certain: no conviction will ever bring Garrett Phillips back, and Nick Hillary’s life will never be the same.

If you want to know more:

  • The most exhaustive look at the story comes from North Country Public Radio, which attempts to dig into just why the story is so complicated and to show as many facets and perspectives as possible.
  • For two examples of the divisive nature of the conflict, here is a site produced by Hillary’s friends and supporters, and here is an example of anti-Hillary framing.
  • For more information on identification and argument, Patricia Roberts Miller’s Deliberate Conflict is an interesting place to start. For example, as it pertains to race, she argues that identification may be troubling as a main rhetorical strategy because it can be both disempowering and isolating. She postulates that for political minorities, “their only effective rhetorical strategy would be to deemphasize their minority and disadvantaged status and to emphasize ways they are like the advantaged majority” (p.111).
  • Other Silver Tongue articles have dug into some of the rhetoric surrounding issues like race and crime.
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