Thursday, June 17, 2010

Testimony Continues in Sucuzhanay Trial

By linking their cell phones calls to cell phone antennas, a detective in the police department’s Intelligence Division was able to approximate the movements of three men, including two who attacked Jose Sucuzhanay and his brother, Romel, in the 2008 assault that led to Jose’s death.

The analysis of the cell phone records, which were obtained with a subpoena, shows “that three cell phones were in close proximity to one another and they traveled from the Bronx to Brooklyn and then from Brooklyn to the Bronx,” said Ronald Weeks, a division detective, during June 17 testimony at the second trial of Keith Phoenix, Jose’s accused killer.

Phoenix, 30, 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.

His co-defendant in the first trial, Hakim Scott, 27, 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.

The Brooklyn district attorney said that the two attacked Jose and 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.

Late on December 6, Phoenix, Scott, and Demetrius Nathaniel, Phoenix’s cousin, traveled from their Bronx homes to a party in Brooklyn. They encountered Jose and Romel as they were driving home.

The analysis by Weeks used roughly a dozen calls connected to different antennas among the three to show them first calling each other in the Bronx then later calls as they headed towards Brooklyn then calls in Brooklyn just before the attack and calls in the Bronx following it. Weeks, who has been in the division for three years, works in the Analytical Programs Unit there.

“We maintain and process various forms of data including cell phone data,” he said. He has done a similar analysis in over 20 criminal cases.

While few would dispute that the use of such records in the Sucuzhanay case is a good thing the analysis also shows the increasing and disquieting ability of government to intrude into the lives of taxpayers. Ultimately, the analysis merely corroborates the more significant evidence -- the oral, written, and videotaped statements Phoenix gave to police, in which he admits to beating Jose with a bat, and the five eyewitnesses to the attack. Two of those witnesses took the stand on June 17.

Nathaniel was in Phoenix’s SUV when he saw Jose and Romel looking “like a married couple walking down the aisle.” Phoenix rolled down his car window and yelled “two faggot ass niggers,” Nathaniel said. He heard a loud bang, which may have been Jose kicking the car, and Scott exited to smash a beer bottle on Jose’s head. Phoenix retrieved a “bat, pole or stick” from his car and beat Jose who was lying on the street. Nathaniel saw Phoenix step away then return to deliver a second set of blows to Jose’s head.

“My cousin knocked him right back down with the bat,” Nathaniel said. He heard “bone breaking,” the 19-year-old said.

The second witness, Kimbale Taylor, said she was awakened by a “thumping noise” and looked out her bedroom window to see “a gentleman who was beating on another gentleman who was lying on the ground.”

Taylor, an emergency medical technician, said she saw two sets of blows made with an aluminum bat with the second set to the prone man’s head.

“He walked back to the SUV,” Taylor said of the assailant. “He walked over to him and started beating him again...He hit him very hard.”

Taylor later identified Phoenix as the man wielding the bat in a police line up and she pointed him out in court as well.

Philip J. Smallman, Phoenix's attorney, was unable to shake Nathaniel or Taylor on cross examination though he may have aided his client's case by eliciting testimony from Nathaniel that Jose and Romel were obviously intoxicated.

The trial will continue on June 21.

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