NEW YORK CITY — A lawyer for one of two men accused of murdering an Ecuadorean immigrant in a hate crime said last week his client acted in self-defense, believing the victim was reaching for a gun during a scuffle.
Keith Phoenix, 28, was being held without bail after his arraignment last Saturday on a charge of second-degree murder as a hate crime. He did not enter a plea.
Phoenix and co-defendant Hakim Scott, 25, are accused of shouting anti-Hispanic and antigay slurs as Jose Sucuzhanay and his brother walked arm in arm to keep warm on Dec. 7 in Brooklyn. Police said Scott hit Sucuzhanay with a beer bottle, and Phoenix beat him with an aluminum baseball bat.
Phoenix’s lawyer, Jay Schwitzman, said his client and Scott were sitting in Phoenix’s sports-utility vehicle when Sucuzhanay and his brother kicked the vehicle. Scott then began fighting with the brothers, Schwitzman said.
The lawyer said after the arraignment that Phoenix was protecting himself and trying to break up the fracas, believing Sucuzhanay was going for a weapon in his waistband.
“It was not a hate crime. I know the police have a different version,” Schwitzman said.
Police said there was no information to support Schwitzman’s account.
Phoenix was found hiding last Friday in a suburban New York apartment. Police had released a video showing him grinning as he paid a bridge toll shortly after Sucuzhanay, 31, was brutally attacked.
Schwitzman said Phoenix is sorry for what happened to Sucuzhanay.
“He’s remorseful,” the lawyer said. “It’s a serious matter. He’s not laughing.”
Scott has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder as a hate crime.
If convicted, the defendants could face 25 years to life in prison.