Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sucuzhanay Testimony Begins in Brooklyn

City Councilman Daniel Dromm, Marcelo Sucuzhanay, Diego Sucuzhanay, Romel Sucuzhanay, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (obscured), and Ana MarĂ­a Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, at a May 7 press conference criticizing the jury verdict in the case against Hakim Scott.

The second trial of Keith Phoenix, the accused killer of Jose Sucuzhanay, began on June 15 with prosecutors emphasizing what they said was the hate motivation for the 2008 attack on Sucuzhanay and his brother that led to Jose’s death.

“This was not an accident, this was not poor judgment, this was certainly not about drinking leading to a fight,” said Josh Hanshaft, an assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case along with Patricia M. McNeill, also an assistant district attorney. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll learn that this occurred for one reason...He believed they were a gay couple.”

The Brooklyn district attorney said that Phoenix, 30, and Hakim Scott, 27, attacked Jose and his brother, Romel, after mistaking them for a gay couple as they were walking home early in the morning on December 7, 2008 in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section. The two Ecuadorian immigrants were huddled close together to stay warm. Witnesses said anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs were used. The defense argued that this was an alcohol-fueled dispute that turned vicious.

Phoenix faces multiple second degree murder, manslaughter, assault, and attempted assault charges with some charged as hate crimes. His first trial ended in a mistrial on May 11 after 11 jurors wanted a murder conviction and one held out for a manslaughter conviction. The jury did not believe the attack was a hate crime.

Scott faced the same charges and was convicted on manslaughter and attempted assault charges on May 6 though not as hate crimes. The two men were tried together, but with separate juries. That Scott’s jury rejected the hate crime tag drew condemnation from community leaders.

As he did when questioning prospective jurors, Philip J. Smallman, Phoenix’s attorney, asked the jury to be patient and remember that his client was presumed innocent.

“Snap decisions seem to have become the norm,” Smallman said. “I’m asking you to avoid that.”

Alcohol was behind the incident, Smallman said, and politics was driving the hate crime label. He referred to statements on the attack made by the mayor and other political leaders which drew an objection from Hanshaft that was sustained by Patricia M. Di Mango, the trial judge.

“Alcohol was running through this like the Nile runs through Egypt,” he said and added later “You will decide, and only you, what constitutes hate.”

The case began with testimony from Daniel Ludemann, the first police officer to arrive on the scene, and Davi Almonte, a cab driver who saw the assault and wrote down the license plate number of Phoenix’s car. Their testimony matched that given at the first trial.

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