NEW YORK (AP)—Two Ecuadorean brothers, stumbling home arm-in-arm after a night out, were viciously attacked, and one beaten to death with a baseball bat, by prejudiced, anti-Hispanic men who mistook them for a gay couple, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Hakim Scott and Keith Phoenix went on trial on charges of murder and assault as a hate crime, one day after a teenager was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime in an unrelated but similar case on Long Island where an Ecuadorean man was stabbed to death.
Scott, 26, and Phoenix, 30, have pleaded not guilty in the death of Jose Sucuzhanay and attempted assault of his brother, Romel. Scott is accused of smashing a beer bottle over Jose Sucuzhanay's head, then chasing after Romel with the jagged edge. Prosecutors said Phoenix then beat Jose Sucuzhanay with an aluminum baseball bat so badly he cracked his skull open. He died days after the attack.
The brothers were walking home from a bar after a party at a local church in Brooklyn 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 fairly drunk, prosecutors said.
Meanwhile, Scott, Phoenix and a teenage relative of Phoenix's, also leaving a party, pulled up in an SUV. They began yelling anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs, according to Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft.
Jose 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 with it down the block weaving through cars, prosecutors said.
Meanwhile, Phoenix grabbed a bat from the back of the SUV and started to attack Jose.
"He beat Jose over and over and over again with the bat held high over his head," Hanshaft said. Romel yelled that he was going to call police and the men then got back into the SUV and drove off - leaving Jose bleeding on the ground. "They continued with their Saturday night as if nothing happened," Hanshaft said.
Two juries are hearing the case, and opening statements were delivered separately for Phoenix and Scott. Phoenix has said he acted in self-defense because it appeared Jose Sucuzhanay was reaching for a gun. His attorney, Philip Smallman, asked jurors to keep an open mind.
"Does anything good happen at 3 a.m., in 30-degree weather, with people with bellies full of booze? No," Smallman said.
Scott's attorney, Craig Newman, said during his brief opening statement the district attorney was unfairly trying to link the two defendants.
"It was never about hate, never about prejudice," Newman said. "He never intended to hurt anyone."
But prosecutors said the attack was prompted because they thought the brothers were gay.
Phoenix "didn't like what they looked like," Hanshaft said. "He didn't like that they were Hispanic. From his eye, it appeared they were a gay couple - a way of life he didn't like and wasn't going to tolerate."
Taxi driver Davi Almonte was at a stoplight about a block away, on his way to pick up a fare, and witnessed the event, saying he had to turn away at one point in the attack. "I didn't want to see the head bleeding or explode," he said through a translator.
He scribbled the SUV's license plate on an envelope but did not call the police. He later said he hadn't wanted to get involved that night. He gave the envelope to a friend who gave it to police the next day.
Jose Sucuzhanay went into a coma and died several days later as his mother was en route from Ecuador to see him. He was buried in Ecuador. His two children, a boy and a girl, live with his parents overseas. The brothers were not in court because they both may testify in the case.
After the attack, hundreds of people demonstrated in Brooklyn. Officials in Ecuador monitored the investigation and discussed urging the U.S. Congress to back a campaign of anti-bias education.
The attack came about a month after another Ecuadorean immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was stabbed to death in Patchogue, N.Y. Jeffrey Conroy, 19, was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime in that case on Monday.
Conroy was one of seven teenagers implicated in the November 2008 stabbing, a death that prosecutors said was the culmination of a campaign of violence targeting Hispanics on Long Island. The teens described the activity as "beaner-hopping" or "Mexican hopping."
Four other defendants have pleaded guilty to hate crime-related charges in the Lucero case, and two others are awaiting trial.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)