By K. S. Nikhil Kumar
Thirty-six jurors, four attorneys, court officers, relatives, and the two defendants waited as Davi Almonte slowly entered the witness box in the Brooklyn Supreme Court yesterday. Early on Dec. 7, 2008 Almonte, a taxi driver, was waiting in his cab for the light to turn green at Stanhope Street and Bushwick Avenue when he saw two brothers, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, walking arm in arm and hugging. He then watched as two other men got out of an SUV and things got bloody.
It was the first day of testimony in the trial of Keith Phoenix, 30, and Hakim Scott, 26, who have both been charged with ten different crimes, including second degree murder as a hate crime. The prosecution charged that Phoenix attacked and killed Jose Sucuzhanay because he was Hispanic and presumed to be gay, while Scott threatened to cause serious harm to his brother Romel.
Almonte, a stout, wiry haired man walked into the courtroom with a look of worry on his face. He wore an oversized shirt, dark slacks and boots and as he took the stand the courtroom grew silent.
During direct examination by Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft, Almonte told the jurors – one panel of twelve for each defendant and six alternates – that he saw the Sucuzhanay brothers walking on Bushwick Avenue and being stopped by an SUV that halted on the walkway of Kossuth Place. Jose tried to touch the vehicle with his leg, but was held back by his brother. Hakim Scott got out of the car and smashed a beer bottle on Jose’s head. Jose fell to the ground. Keith Phoenix then pulled an aluminum baseball bat from the truck and started hitting Jose as he lay on the ground. According to medical examiners and Police Officer Daniel Ludemann, who was the first witness in court as well as the first to respond to the scene, Jose was bleeding from his head and later suffered from blood trauma to his fractured skull.
Almonte, who spoke through a Spanish translator, said that Jose and Romel did not attempt to fight back before or after Scott struck Jose’s head with the bottle. He also said that after a while, he stopped watching Jose being hit with the bat, because he didn’t want to see his head bleeding or explode. He said he heard the “impacts of the hitting” as he sat in his cab.
Almonte, who had been working his shift from 5 p.m. the previous evening, turned left onto Bushwick Avenue and pulled up in front of the SUV. He noted the number of the license plate on a white envelope that was presented as evidence before the court. He testified that he did not call the police because he didn’t have a phone and said nothing to his people at his work place on his cab radio. He gave the envelope to a friend, who notified the police. “I didn’t want to get involved in this,” he said. But he spoke to police the following day, nonetheless.
In his opening statement Hanshaft said that Jose and Romel were walking home in the wee hours of Sunday after drinking at a local bar. They had been out to a party with Jose’s girlfriend, who later dropped the brothers at a bar close to their home in Bushwick. Jose had a lot more to drink than his brother and was struggling to walk home. He was also cold, so Romel put his jacket over him as they clung to each other in the below-freezing weather.
Phoenix, Scott and Phoenix’s cousin, Demetrius Nathaniel, who was 17 at the time, also went out to a party that night, said Hanshaft. On their way up to the Bronx they saw the Sucuzhanay brothers walking on Bushwick Avenue. They stopped their SUV, a 1998 red Mercury Mountaineer Suburban, on the walkway in front of the men on the street.
Hanshaft told the jurors that the occupants in the SUV shouted anti-Hispanic and anti-gay slurs, because, the brothers “were walking like a married couple,” as one witness had described it. “Look at these little fags,” “Faggot-ass niggers,” “Fucking Spanish!” were some of the things that were allegedly spewed at Jose and Romel. It was then that Jose retaliated by trying to kick the SUV, which led to Hakim getting out of the right rear door with a beer bottle in his hand.
Trisha McNeill, the assistant district attorney in the case against Scott, said that after striking Jose’s head with the beer bottle, he chased Romel down the street and tried to cut him with the end of the broken bottle that he was still holding, by swinging it across his throat.
Meanwhile, Hanshaft charged that Phoneix struck Jose with the bat repeatedly and was walking back to his SUV when Jose started to get up. On seeing this Phoenix allegedly went back and hit Jose again, this time targeting the blows to his head.
Medical examiners later found Jose’s skull was broken. Two photographs of the crime scene displayed before the court contained graphic detail of a pool of blood as well as the clothes that were removed by paramedics from Jose’s body. The defense attorneys expressed concern about the prejudice that this might cause in the jurors’ minds. But Judge Patricia DiMango overruled this objection stating that the evidentiary value of the images far outweighed any prejudice that might occur.
Officer Ludemann, who was patrolling the 83rd precinct with his partner, said that when he arrived at the spot he found Romel in a state of shock standing by Jose. An ambulance arrived and took Jose to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. “He was out of it – slow to respond,” Ludemann said of Romel’s behavior when questioned by Phoenix’s defense attorney Philip J. Smallman.
Phoenix had left the scene by the then, along with Scott and his cousin Nathaniel, who according to the both sides did nothing other than look on at what was happening. Nathaniel is expected to appear in court as a witness for the prosecution on Wednesday.
Hanshaft also told the jurors that Phoenix’s SUV was seen crossing the Tri-Borough Bridge into the Bronx about 20 minutes after the incident. Cameras apparently caught Phoenix and Scott laughing at the toll plaza as they went on to pick up two girl friends and go out to a club later that night. “They went on with their night as if nothing had happened,” said Hanshaft.
Investigators tapped Phoenix’s phone after finding his address through the license plate information provided to them by Davi Almonte. They also used another technology called “cell sight” which tracks a person’s whereabouts based on the signal from their cell phone, through which they confirmed that Scott and Phoenix were together at Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue – the crime scene – when the attack took place. They recovered the bat that was used on Jose. It had been tossed in the woods.
Scott and Phoenix were arrested in late February 2009, nearly three months after the incident. Phoenix was found hiding in the bathroom at a friend’s apartment in the Yonkers, with plans to leave town. “So what if I killed someone? Does that mean I’m a bad person?” he said upon being arrested, according to Hanshaft.
The defense attorneys were brief in their remarks, but probed Davi Almonte in significant detail about his account, especially on the moments just before he witnessed the incident. Scott’s lawyer, Craig Newman, asked that the jury determine whether or not his client was an accomplice in the case at all. “Hakim Scott’s actions are separate from those of Keith Phoenix,” he said. “He never intended to harm anyone. He never intended to seriously harm anyone. He is not guilty.”
Smallman, Phoenix’s lawyer, questioned whether or not this was a hate crime. “Who designates what is hate?” he asked. He also ended his opening statement with a question, “Does anything good happen at three o clock on a Sunday morning in 30 degree weather with people with bellies full of booze? No, rarely, if ever.”