Hate Crime Baseball Bat Killers Thought Victim Was Gay, Get Decades to Life in Prison

Keith Phoenix (NYC Police Dept.)

NEW YORK, N.Y.  (CBS/AP)Two men will spend decades in prison for beating an Ecuadorean immigrant to death in Brooklyn after mistaking him and his brother for a gay couple.

Keith Phoenix was convicted of murder as a hate crime in the December 2008 death of Jose Sucuzhanay. He was sentenced Thursday to 37 years to life in prison. Hakim Scott was convicted of manslaughter but acquitted of murder. He got 37 years in prison.

Judge Patricia DiMango told Phoenix it was "beyond the comprehension of any civilized person" that someone motivated "by the sport of it could take another human being's life in such a cruel and violent manner."

"I want to offer my deepest, humblest apology for the outcome of that night," Phoenix said. "I swear to God that is not what I intended to happen."

The judge called Scott the first physical catalyst because he got out of a car and broke a bottle over Sucuzhanay's head. Said Scott: "Not a day goes by when my heart does not hurt."

The brothers were walking home, arm in arm, from a bar after a party at a Brooklyn church. Romel Sucuzhanay had put his coat around his brother to keep him warm and was helping him walk because he was drunk.

The defendants, also leaving a party, pulled up in a SUV and began yelling anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs.

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, according to testimony.

The two drove away and were captured about 20 minutes later on surveillance footage crossing into the Bronx. Prosecutors ended their closing arguments by showing footage of Phoenix on a bridge, smiling.

Members of Phoenix's and Scott's families wept loudly in the courtroom after sentencing. They refused to speak to reporters outside court.

The victim's mother, Julia Quituna, said in Spanish that she felt bad for them. "As a mother, I feel sad for the family of those who took my son," she said, quietly closing her eyes to gather her thoughts. "But they had no right to take the life of my son and leave his two children orphaned. For me, it is the greatest pain in my life."

Jose Sucuzhanay's brother Diego, who has acted as a family spokesman since the attack, said they would set up a foundation in Jose's honor to help the NYPD provide rewards to find those whose attacks are motivated by hate.

"Today's sentencing sends a message," he said. "The city will not tolerate hate against anyone ... against immigrants. I am sorry my brother had to die for this message."

June 30, 2010 - Hate Crime Murder: Attacker Thought Beating Victim Was Gay