In Jose Sucuzhanay Murder Arraignment, Killers Say It Wasn’t a Hate Crime

keith_phoenix_tollboothSaying that the reason he hurled racial and homophobic epithets at Ecuadorean immigrant Jose Sucuzhanay while beating him to death, Keith Phoenix, 28, told the Brooklyn Criminal Court on Saturday that he saw Sucuzhanay “reaching for a weapon in his waistband” and was only acting in his own self-defense. Police didn’t find a weapon on Sucuzhany or his brother, who fled and survived the attack. Their lawyer doesn’t just reject the self-defense argument, he’s revolted by it, saying, “We definitely believe those allegations are insulting to the victims, alleging that the perpetrators were acting in self-defense.”

The New York Times reports on the legal maneuvering Phoenix’s lawyer is beginning to try to make the issue about the term “hate crime” instead of the fact that his client killed a man:

“According to a complaint prepared by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, Mr. Phoenix and another man, Hakim Scott, 25, used racial and anti-gay slurs before attacking the Sucuzhanay brothers with a baseball bat and a bottle at Bushwick Avenue and Kossuth Place in Bushwick on Dec. 7.

At his arraignment, Mr. Phoenix was ordered kept in custody on the recommendation of the prosecutor, Sandra Fried, who cited “the vicious nature of this crime.”

According to the complaint, Mr. Phoenix hit Jose Sucuzhanay “repeatedly” with the bat. He faces a possible maximum sentence of 25 years to life if convicted. Mr. Sucuzhanay, an owner of a real estate agency in Brooklyn, died on Dec. 12 at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens.

Jay H. Schwitzman, a lawyer for Mr. Phoenix, said his client has denied the charges and is looking forward to establishing his innocence.

In court, Mr. Schwitzman said that Mr. Phoenix was defending himself after Jose Sucuzhanay appeared to reach for a concealed weapon. “The deceased was the aggressor,” Mr. Schwitzman said.

He later told reporters that one of the Sucuzhanay brothers had kicked the door of the vehicle Mr. Phoenix was driving. Mr. Scott, also from the Bronx, got out, he said. A fight started, and Mr. Phoenix went to break it up, Mr. Schwitzman added.

“To me, it is not a gay bashing or gay hate crime,” he said.

He later said in a telephone interview that Jose Sucuzhanay “reached for something in his waistband and Mr. Phoenix believed it was a deadly weapon. As to what it was, I do not have the details.”

He also said that Mr. Phoenix “is remorseful and he recognizes the seriousness” of the case.”