By Jeannette Neumann
When Keith Phoenix was arrested in his bathroom at 2.30 a.m. for his alleged role in a hate crime murder, he told the detective, “I killed someone. Does that make me a bad person?”
Prosecutors are trying to convince a Brooklyn jury that it’s enough to earn him life in prison. Phoenix, 30, and his friend, 26-year-old Hakim Scott, are on trial for allegedly shouting homophobic and racial epithets while brutally beating Jose Sucuzhanay, who died days after the December 7, 2008 attack from skull fractures and brain injuries. Jurors heard testimony on Wednesday from two New York City Police Department detectives, drawing to a close the second week of the ongoing trial.
Detective William Gonzalez told jurors how on February 27, 2009 he found Phoenix standing motionless in the bathroom of the apartment where he had been staying in Yonkers. Williams said he twice demanded that Phoenix come out of the bathroom with his hands up. But Phoenix just stood there. Finally, Williams pushed past the bathroom door, slightly ajar, and slipped handcuffs onto Phoenix.
Detective Geoffrey Hernandez spoke to Phoenix in Brooklyn’s 86th precinct hours after his arrest and asked him what had happened on the night of the murder.
“‘This isn’t like the newspapers and the TV are saying. It was just some ghetto fight. It got out of hand,’” Phoenix said, according to Hernandez.
Several hours later, Phoenix wrote a statement for detectives. Hernandez read it aloud for the jury on Wednesday afternoon, making it clear just how out of hand the situation got on that snowy December night in 2008.
Phoenix wrote that he was driving back to the Bronx from a Brooklyn party with Scott and Scott’s cousin when two men crossed the street in front of his car. He blew the horn twice and one of the men cursed at him and kicked his truck, a Mercury Mountaineer. Irritated, Phoenix got out of the vehicle to see if there was any damage. When Phoenix thought he saw one of the men reach for a gun, he hurried to his trunk, pulled out an aluminum bat and started beating the man, later identified as Sucuzhanay.
While jurors had heard many of the facts from the night of the crime, it was the first time they had heard the confessional statements written by the two men, which read like diary entries that were never meant to be shared.
“I hit him and then I hit him again,” Phoenix wrote. “I ran back to my truck and then drove straight home to the Bronx.”
Phoenix headed across the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge on his way to the Bronx. When he handed the tollbooth attendant his fare at 3:47 a.m., he was smiling and appeared to be joking with the two passengers in the vehicle, video presented in court for the first time showed.
Scott had been brought in for questioning a few days before his friend Phoenix. Detectives initially thought Scott had only been a witness to the crime. They thought Scott’s cousin Demetrius Nathaniel was the man who had slammed the beer bottle down on Sucuzhanay’s head.
“We know you were there,” Detective Hernandez said he repeatedly told Scott, stabbing his finger insistently at a map to indicate the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, the scene of the crime. “We have cell phone records and your cell phone was hitting a tower nearby. We know you were there,” Hernandez persisted.
After hours of questioning, Scott looked at Hernandez and said: “Give me a cigarette and I’m going to tell you everything that happened.”
Scott’s confession turned him from a key witness into chief suspect.
Scott said that while Phoenix was arguing with Sucuzhanay and his brother from the truck, one of the men spit at the open window and hit Scott. He jumped out and began hitting Sucuzhanay with a 12-ounce Budweiser beer bottle. Then he began to chase Sucuzhanay’s brother, Romel. Scott quickly gave up and as he was returning to the car he said he saw Scott raising a baseball bat above his shoulder and slamming it down to hit Sucuzhanay, who was lying on the ground.
Hernandez said Scott told him that “he was very upset with Keith and his behavior that night but that things got out of control.”
He asked Scott to write down what he had told him and then arrested him. The detective read the statement aloud on Wednesday for jurors.
“In December in Brooklyn, an act of crime took place,” the confession began. “From that day on I knew what had happened was brutal. My intention that night wasn’t to step out and hurt anyone. I knew I didn’t kill anyone but I know I played a part. Deep down in my heart I’m not a bad person. I also have brothers myself that I love dearly.”
“I let my anger overcede [sic] me. And I’m sorry for what I’ve done. Only God knows the pain I feel.”