NEW YORK – NEW YORK (AP) — A man was convicted Monday of murder as a hate crime during his retrial on charges that he beat an Ecuadorean immigrant with an aluminum baseball bat after mistaking him and his brother for a gay couple.
Jurors deliberated for about seven hours before convicting Keith Phoenix in the death of Jose Sucuzhanay. He also was convicted of attempted assault as a hate crime in the attack on Romel Sucuzhanay.
The trial started about six weeks after the mistrial was declared on May 11 when a juror refused to deliberate.
The brothers were walking home from a bar after a party at a Brooklyn church on Dec. 7, 2008. Romel Sucuzhanay had put his coat around his brother to keep him warm and was helping him walk because he was drunk.
Meanwhile, Hakim Scott, 26 and Phoenix, 30, also leaving a party, pulled up in a sport utility vehicle. They began yelling anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs, according to Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft.
Jose Sucuzhanay became upset and tried to kick the wheel of the SUV, and Scott got out and smashed the beer bottle on 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 with the bat, according to testimony.
The two drove away in the SUV and were captured about 20 minutes later on surveillance footage crossing the Triborough Bridge — since renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge — into the Bronx. Prosecutors ended their closing arguments Monday by showing the footage of Phoenix on the bridge, smiling.
Scott was convicted in May of manslaughter but acquitted of a more serious murder charge, and the jury found his actions were not a hate crime. He faces 25 years in prison and is awaiting sentencing.
The two men were initially tried together with separate juries because they had implicated each other.
Phoenix is facing 25 years to life in prison. His sentencing was set for Aug. 5. Both men will be sentenced by Judge Patricia DiMango.
Phoenix's attorney, Philip Smallman, had argued that the case was about a fight that escalated, not a premeditated attack.
Smallman said Monday that it was Scott who started the fight, not Phoenix, and the evidence against his client, especially in the case of Romel, was weak.
"The bulk of the activity was attributed to the co-defendant," he said. "My client wasn't the first person out of the automobile. He didn't start the fight."
Smallman said he would appeal.
"The jury has spoken and that's the beauty of the system that we have," he said.
The victims' brother said Phoenix showed no remorse.
"I cannot understand how a person could kill another person and be laughing, enjoying 20 minutes later," Diego Sucuzhanay told reporters after the two-week trial. "That kind of reaction — it can be seen only in a person that's full of hate."
The attack came about a month after another Ecuadorean immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was stabbed to death in Patchogue, on Long Island. Jeffrey Conroy, 19, was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime in that case last month. Six other teens pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.