Brooklyn, NY – Keith Phoenix, alleged murderer of Ecuadoran immigrant José Sucuzhañay, is in a Brooklyn court again after a mistrial. Phoenix and his co-attacker, Hakim Scott, took offense at José and his brother, Romel, as they walked arm-in-arm on a freezing night in December 2008. Hurling epithets at the Ecuadorans for being Hispanic and “gay” (in fact, neither of the brothers are gay), Scott assaulted José with a beer bottle, and Phoenix allegedly delivered the coup de grace with an aluminum baseball bat. Scott received a sentence in the Spring for manslaughter, escaping hate crimes charges. When a juror in Phoenix’s first trial refused to continue, the judge in Brooklyn Supreme Court declared a mistrial. There seems little doubt that Phoenix is guilty. A toll booth camera caught the pair of assailants smiling and laughing as they fled the scene of the crime. Witnesses stand ready to testify again that the bat attack was so brutal and bloody the taxi driver witness had to avert his eyes from the scene. And Phoenix himself seems to be doing all he can to get himself convicted, too. In a confession taken by a detective at Phoenix’s arrest recorded the defendant as asking, “So I killed somebody. Does that make me a bad person?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it does, in the opinion of the Unfinished Lives Project Team. Critics of how the courts in Brooklyn have been handling this case look to the Phoenix trial as a way of redressing what appears to be a severe disrespect for Latin American immigrants and LGBT people. The main defense Phoenix is mounting is that too much alcohol led him to do what he did. He has yet to show any remorse for his actions. Keith’s attorney has suggested that his client feared that the victim might have a weapon in his waistband, and that José was the one who started the fight. When José M. Arrufat Gracia, the lawyer for the Sucuzhañay family heard these allegations, he said, “We definitely believe those allegations are insulting to the victims, alleging that the perpetrators were acting in self-defense.” Perhaps a prison term of decades will assist him to develop the self-restraint he could not exercize two years ago when he bludgeoned an innocent man to death, and the remorse for a hate crime he seems incapable of understanding today.
Brooklyn, NY – Testimony in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court corroborated Romel Sucuzhañay’s contention, that two young men attacked him and his brother, José Sucuzhañay, wielding a broken beer bottle and an aluminum base ball bat, screaming anti-Latino and anti-gay slurs. The assault left José with a broken skull. The Ecuadoran immigrant, 31 years old, living in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, lingered in a coma for five days, dying just before his mother got to his bedside from Ecuador. Any reasonable person would call that a hate crime. Not the Brooklyn jury, however. They bought the defense line, that Hakim Scott, 26, was caught up in an unfortunate “escalating fight.” It did not seem to matter that a the prosecution established that Scott, who broke his beer bottle over José’s head before menacing Romel with the jagged glass, had dazed José to the point that his accomplice, Keith Phoenix, had an easy target as he lethally swung his bat. On May 6, the jury found Scott guilty, not of first or second degree murder and hate crime, but first degree manslaughter, allowing him to escape a life sentence for snuffing out an innocent man’s life. Scott and Phoenix didn’t like the Sucuzhañay brothers because they were Hispanic, and they appeared to be gay. While Scott will face a possible 40 years in prison for his manslaughter conviction when he is sentenced on June 9, it is hard not to say that there was a travesty of justice in this case. Now, because a juror refused to hear any more testimony in the Phoenix case, Judge Patricia Dimango has declared a mistrial, and the Sucuzhañay family and their supporters will have to wait further agonizing weeks to learn whether the 31-year-old ball bat perp will escape the full force of the law, too. Latinos, especially Ecuadorans, are outraged by the verdict. So are LGBT people. And justice has not been done for José Sucuzhañay. It seems that living at the intersection of two discriminations is very dangerous place to be in America.
Brooklyn, New York – After a year and a half, a murdered Ecuadoran immigrant mistaken as gay may get some justice. José Sucuzhañay, 31, a native of Ecuador with a real estate brokerage in New York, was savagely dispatched with a beer bottle, kicks and stomps, and an aluminum baseball bat, according to testimony reported by media throughout the Five Boroughs of New York. The trials of Hakim Scott, 26, and Keith Phoenix, 30, got underway in Brooklyn Supreme Court on April 10 for the 2008 murder of Sucuzhañay. Charges against the pair include second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, and murder as a hate crime. If convicted, the alleged killers could face sentences of 78-years-to-life imprisonment. The defendants are being tried simultaneously before separate juries in a precisely choreographed judicial drama. At times, both juries are seated to hear the same testimony. At other times, dictated by the presentation of evidence, only one jury is present in the courtroom. As reported by the New York Times, José Sucuzhañay and his brother, Romel, visiting from Ecuador, were attacked at 3 a.m. on December 7, 2008 in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn because Scott and Phoenix “didn’t like the way they looked.” Prosecutor Josh Hanshaft, referring to Phoenix who allegedly wielded the bat, told the juries, “He didn’t like that they were Hispanic. From his eyes, it appeared they were a gay couple, a way of life he didn’t like and wasn’t going to tolerate.” In reality, both men were heterosexual. The Latino brothers had been drinking at parties in the neighborhood and were tipsy enough that they uninhibitedly hugged each other for support and warmth on a bitterly old night as they walked along. The attackers, who had also been partying that night, set upon them, yelling “faggot ass niggers” and “fucking Spanish,” from Phoenix’s red SUV. The prosecution believe that both assailants acted in concert to effect their victim’s death. Scott, Hanshaft said, emerged from the auto and smashed a beer bottle over José’s head. He then charged Romel with the deadly shards of broken glass, slashing at his neck. Phoenix took the bat, swinging it “high above his head,” and struck Sucuzhañay “over and over and over again,” Hanshaft said. “He came back with the bat and hit him two to three times on the head, cracking his skull wide open.” A Brooklyn cabbie at the scene witnessed the attack well enough to capture the license plate of the red SUV, but then had to cover his eyes with his hands, unable to watch the coup de grâce delivered by Phoenix. As reported by Chelsea Now, taxi driver Davi Almonte, speaking through an interpreter, told the court, “I didn’t want to see the head explode when it was hit. I could hear the impact [of the bat crushing his skull].” According to NY1, in testimony on the trial’s second day, Demetrius Nathaniels, cousin of Keith Phoenix, heard the bones cracking as Phoenix bludgeoned Sucuzhañay with the bat on his head, back, side and ribs. A coroner’s report confirmed that José died of a fractured skull from blunt force trauma. Romel, only superficially injured by Scott’s assault, was left stunned, nearly catatonic by the body of his brother who lay in a massive pool of blood, and had to be led away by police responding to the alarm raised by witnesses. The alleged killers sped from the scene. A toll booth video capture of the red SUV on the Triborough Bridge clearly shows Phoenix laughing and smiling barely 19 minutes after the fatal attack. Sucuzhañay was left brain dead, and placed on a ventilator at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens where he finally succumbed on December 12. An outpouring of grief and rage followed news of the murder, both in New York and in Sucuzhañay’s native Ecuador where the slain immigrant was given a near-state funeral attended by hundreds. New York Gay and Latino advocacy groups organized protests and vigils, while city officials roundly condemned the brutal killing. Philip J. Smallman, attorney for Phoenix, summed up the consensus of all concerned with events of December 7: “Does anything good happen at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning in 30-degree weather, with people with bellies full of booze?” he asked. The Brooklyn trial is expected to last for a number of weeks.