Monday, June 21, 2010

Romel Sucuzhanay Testifies at Trial of His Brother's Accused Killer

Testifying in the trial of Keith Phoenix, the man who is accused of killing Jose Sucuzhanay, Jose’s brother largely maintained a stoic demeanor, but was overcome with emotion at one point.

“I came to look at my brother and my brother was on the ground and his tongue was out,” said Romel Sucuzhanay through an interpreter on June 21 in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

Romel next saw Jose when he was on life support in a Queens hospital. As he described seeing him then having to sign for his brother’s body at the city morgue, Romel gripped his forehead and hung his head. At other moments, his anger at Phoenix was apparent when he fixed a withering glare on the defendant.

The Brooklyn district attorney said that Phoenix, 30, and Hakim Scott, 27, attacked the brothers 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 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.

As he did during the first trial, Romel described how he and Jose were out for a night of dancing and drinking after a day of work. At a church dance, Romel said he had three beers and Jose drank 11 or 12. They stopped at a bar where each man had part of a Long Island Iced Tea and then headed to Jose’s home on Kossuth Place.

“We were walking and that night it was very cold and my brother was shivering,” Romel said adding that he took off his jacket and put it over his brother. As they approached the intersection of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, Romel noticed a red car stopped at the light.

“The driver looked at us with an angry face as if he was upset,” Romel said. “When we were walking towards the house they came out screaming ‘Fucking Spanish’...It was very fast. They jumped out and they hit my brother in the head with a bottle.”

The bottle shattered and Romel said the shards cut his hands, arm and chest. He saw a second man “hitting my brother with a bat.”

The prosecution’s case consists almost entirely of Phoenix’s written, oral, and videotaped statements, in which he admits to beating Jose with a bat, and five eyewitnesses including Romel. The witnesses generally agree though they do diverge in places. Only Romel heard the anti-Latino slur while two other witnesses heard an anti-gay slur.

On cross examination, Philip J. Smallman, Phoenix’s attorney, elicited some testimony that may aid his client in avoiding a conviction on the assault and attempted assault charges. Romel conceded that he was never cut by the broken bottle which was wielded by Scott and that the wounds did not require medical attention.

“And again, you were never treated?” Smallman asked. “No, never,” Romel said.

The trial will continue on June 22.

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