The fifth and final eyewitness to the attack that left Jose Sucuzhanay dead told a Brooklyn jury that he heard the driver of a red SUV direct an anti-gay slur at Jose and his brother Romel then watched as that driver and another man attacked the brothers.
“The driver in the front was talking to the two Hispanic males,” said Kuson Nelson on June 23 then he quoted the driver saying “Look at those two little faggot motherfuckers right there.”
Nelson was testifying in the second trial of Keith Phoenix, 30, who 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.
The Brooklyn district attorney said that Phoenix and Hakim Scott, 27, assaulted 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. Romel said an anti-Latino slur was also used.
The defense argued that this was an alcohol-fueled dispute that turned vicious and that Phoenix, believing Jose was armed, was defending himself.
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.
Nelson was returning to his home on Bushwick Avenue the night of the incident and saw “two Hispanic males” walking on the sidewalk headed towards Kossuth Place.
“One had his arm around each other, joking, playing around,” Nelson said. After hearing the slur, Nelson saw one man, not the driver, exit the vehicle holding a beer bottle.
“He had a beer bottle, he raised his hand,” Nelson said. “I heard a crash.”
The allegation is that Scott first struck Jose on the head with the beer bottle then Phoenix beat him with a bat. Nelson saw the driver wielding a bat, but he could not see what he was hitting.
“I heard metal hitting concrete,” he said. “I seen the bat in motion, but I couldn’t tell who was being hit or what.”
On cross examination, Philip J. Smallman, Phoenix’s attorney, emphasized where Nelson’s testimony was inconsistent with testimony from other witnesses. Nelson said the first man out of the SUV was in the front passenger seat while other evidence, including Phoenix’s statements and testimony from the third man in the car, have him sitting in the rear. Despite saying he lived on Bushwick for 10 years, Nelson kept referring to Stanhope Street, which is directly across from his apartment building, as Stockholm Street.
The five eyewitnesses generally agreed with each other though there were some differences in their testimony. The bigger problem for the defense is that Phoenix admitted to beating Jose in his oral, written and videotaped statements. By June 23, the jury had heard all of those statements.
No witness has supported Phoenix’s assertion that Jose was armed nor were any weapons found on or near Jose. Most of the witnesses say the brothers were not fighting.
Testimony in the case is expected to end on June 24 and closing arguments will likely be made on June 28.