— -- After being found not guilty of murder, former college soccer coach Nick Hillary opened up to ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas for his first post-verdict interview, saying that a monumental burden has been lifted off his shoulders.
Hillary was accused of fatally strangling 12-year-old Garrett Phillips, the son of his ex-girlfriend, in Potsdam, New York, in October 2011. Hillary had dated Garrett's mother, Tandy Cyrus, for about a year, and the two had broken up months before Garrett's death.
Hillary was arrested several years after Garrett's death, and the case went to trial this September. He waived his right to a jury trial and requested a bench trial, and the not guilty verdict was announced Wednesday morning.
Hillary, who told Vargas earlier this year before the trial began that he's innocent, said after the not guilty verdict was delivered, "It's certainly a burden that has been taken off my shoulder."
"Not just for myself, but for my entire family," added Hillary, a father of five. "This also is a great day for them."
As Hillary sat down with Vargas and his attorneys around a backyard picnic table Wednesday after the verdict, the sun shining down and Hillary's friends and family there for support, Hillary told Vargas, "I would not be able to be sitting here at this moment had it not been for great friends, good supporters."
"The deck is always stacked against the defendant because the state has an unlimited budget," he said. Sarah Johnson, a billionaire heiress who attended the same local university as Hillary, backed his criminal case, paying his bail and legal fees.
Looking back at the five years since Garrett's death, Hillary said he wished he could have been more of a comfort to Cyrus and Garrett's younger brother, Aaron, "at the early outset." But he said he felt he was "robbed short" of being able to grieve Garrett's death "because of how quickly I was zoned in on" as a suspect.
"In the midst of my grief I have to put myself in a survivor mindset," he said. "I'm fighting for my life, and that of my kids' future."
Cyrus told Vargas two days before the verdict was delivered that if Hillary were found not guilty, she would still believe that he killed her son and nothing could convince her otherwise. She added that sitting through the trial had been "very difficult."
"It's now five years of reliving and replaying everything over and over," she said.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who co-prosecuted the case with St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain, told ABC News after the verdict, "I am disappointed with the verdict but have respect for Judge [Felix] Catena." He declined to comment further. Rain is unwavering, telling reporters after the verdict, "Just because he was found not guilty doesn't mean he's innocent."
Meanwhile, Hillary told Vargas after the verdict, "I continue to pray for the family."
"Because that's the one thing I could do, and I will continue to pray for the family," he said. "They will be in my thoughts and prayers."
Earl Ward, one of Hillary's attorneys, added, "This family needs closure," and said the police must "continue their investigation."
Potsdam police have said that they suspect Garrett's killer jumped out of an open window in the apartment after strangling Garrett. Fingerprints recovered from the window did not match Hillary and have not been identified.
Ward told Vargas, "Nick Hillary did not commit this crime. ... Somebody else is responsible for this, and those fingerprints could be the key."