NEW YORK – Two men convicted of beating an Ecuadorean immigrant to death after mistaking him and his brother for a gay couple were sentenced to the maximum Thursday and will spend decades in prison.
Keith Phoenix was convicted of murder as a hate crime in the December 2008 death of Jose Sucuzhanay and sentenced to 37 years to life in prison. His co-defendant, Hakim Scott, was convicted of manslaughter but acquitted of a more serious murder charge. He was sentenced to 37 years in prison.
Both men were also convicted of attempted assault of Jose's brother, Romel. Phoenix's first case ended in a mistrial after a juror refused to deliberate.
The victim's mother, Julia Quituna, traveled from Cuenca, Ecuador, and sat in the courtroom with three of her surviving 11 children. Romel Sucuzhanay and Quituna spoke, barely above a whisper, through a Spanish interpreter, saying their lives were forever altered.
Scott and Phoenix were remorseful at the hearing, apologizing to their families and to the Sucuzhanays and reiterating their belief that the case was about a fight that escalated, not a premeditated attack.
"I want to offer my deepest, humblest apology for the outcome of that night," Phoenix said. "I swear to God that is not what I intended to happen."
Scott said he was raised in a family with morals and begged Judge Patricia DiMango to give him a second chance. "Not a day goes by when my heart does not hurt," he said.
But DiMango was not swayed. She told Phoenix it was "beyond the comprehension of any civilized person" that someone motivated "by the sport of it could take another human being's life in such a cruel and violent manner."
The judge called Scott the first physical catalyst because he got out of a car and broke a bottle over Jose Sucuzhanay's head.
The brothers were walking home, arm in arm, from a bar after a party at a Brooklyn church on Dec. 7, 2008, a cold night. Romel Sucuzhanay had put his coat around his brother to keep him warm and was helping him walk because he was drunk.
The defendants, also leaving a party, pulled up in an SUV and began yelling anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs, according to trial testimony.
Jose Sucuzhanay became upset and tried to kick the wheel of the SUV, and Scott got out and smashed the beer bottle over his head, then chased Romel Sucuzhanay down the block with it, according to trial testimony. Phoenix grabbed a bat from the back of the SUV and attacked Jose Sucuzhanay, cracking his skull, according to testimony.
The two drove away and were captured about 20 minutes later on surveillance footage crossing into the Bronx. Prosecutors ended their closing arguments by showing footage of Phoenix on a bridge, smiling.
Members of Phoenix's and Scott's families wept loudly in the courtroom after sentencing. They refused to speak to reporters outside court.
Quituna said in Spanish that she felt bad for them. "As a mother, I feel sad for the family of those who took my son," she said, quietly closing her eyes to gather her thoughts. "But they had no right to take the life of my son and leave his two children orphaned. For me, it is the greatest pain in my life."
Jose Sucuzhanay's brother Diego, who has acted as a family spokesman since the attack, said they would set up a foundation in Jose's honor to help the NYPD provide rewards to find those whose attacks are motivated by hate.
"Today's sentencing sends a message," he said. "The city will not tolerate hate against anyone ... against immigrants. I am sorry my brother had to die for this message."