Three years after murder of DYS employee still not in court

Three years after murder of DYS employee still not in court
Three years after murder of DYS employee still not in court

SPRINGFIELD – Nearly three years after James Hillman was killed in an incident in a cell at a Springfield juvenile detention center, a trial date for the suspected killer has yet to be set.

According to court documents, Hillman, 60, a veteran child welfare worker, was in the process of placing 15-year-old inmate David Burgos in a room after a “time out” following an outburst in a classroom in the building.

Because Burgos was a minor, his criminal past is being kept secret in court. Hillman, a veteran juvenile justice worker, seemed comfortable around Burgos, according to a video cited in police reports. But when Hillman tried to help Burgos make his bed, something apparently went wrong, according to court records.

“Security, get that motherfucker!” Hillman shouted on June 30, 2021, while Burgos allegedly pressed his forearm against his throat, according to video footage.

“This (racial slur) is dead,” Burgos said, referring to Hillman as a black man after he triggered a personnel call for assistance and summoned additional personnel.

According to court records, no one arrived in time. Hillman died on July 20, 2021.

“For about five minutes, Hillman can be heard gasping for air and making incomprehensible screams,” a police report states. “Shortly after 11:02 a.m., no more noise can be heard.”

The incident occurred at a facility on Tinkham Road run by the nonprofit Center for Human Development, one of the region’s largest social networks. Burgos has had two defense attorneys and is now on his third. Previous attorneys have accused CHD of not following protocols. CHD officials say changes have been made.

“Following this terrible tragedy, CHD has thoroughly reviewed and strengthened protocols to ensure the highest level of safety possible for staff and individuals served in the Tinkham Road DYS program,” said spokesperson Ben Craft. “We miss our colleague James and keep his memory alive every day in the work we do to support youth in conflict with the law.”

Burgos was charged with murder as a “juvenile offender,” a status that means the charges and sentencing process in court are different than if an adult were charged with the same crimes, due to relatively recent changes in state law.

Unless Burgos is convicted of murder, he could receive probation or up to 20 years in prison. He is being held in the Hampshire County Jail, according to his current attorney, Boston attorney Stephen Weymouth. The attorney has experience with juvenile cases and considers Burgos’ family background the most traumatic he has seen for a child in decades.

“His mother was murdered and he was nine years old,” Weymouth said in an interview. “But the sympathy factor for Mr. Hillman is high, for my client not so much. His mother was a heavily involved Latin queen,” he said, referring to the notorious street gang.

According to Weymouth, the little boy received neither therapy nor help from the justice system after his mother’s death.

According to court records, preliminary hearings in the Burgos case have been postponed at least three times and no trial date has been set. Court officials say it can take up to three years or more for a jury to speak in a murder trial.

A Hillman family member said he was the ultimate diplomat in a volatile environment.

“He handled the situations so well. I know he thought he could talk to him,” Deborah Hillman, James’ sister, said of Burgos.

As a result of the change of attorneys, numerous motions were filed last year questioning Hillman’s medical condition and his DNA evidence.

The motions filed say Hillman had more than one DNA sample on his fingertips. Other court documents indicate he suffered from heart disease.

“I’m not convinced it’s murder. I think it could be manslaughter,” Weymouth said.

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