By Nate Rawlings
Diego Sucuzhanay arrived on the first day of the trial of the two men alleged to have murdered his brother only to discover that the case had been moved to a larger courtroom.
First he spoke with his surviving brother, Romel, and then to a court officer before leading a small procession of relatives downstairs.
By the time they arrived in Ceremonial Courtroom One, the defendants, Keith Phoenix and Hakim Scott, were already sitting at the front of the room with their lawyers. Phoenix and Scott stood charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime in the December 2008 beating death of Jose Sucuzhanay. Romel was also present on the night of the alleged attack but managed to escape with minor injuries.
Before a jury could be selected, Judge Patricia Dimango would have to rule on admissibility of evidence, including Scott’s videotaped confession.
Diego and Jose immigrated from Ecuador, and in 2007, the brothers went into business together. They started Open Passport Realty, selling apartments in Bushwick. Diego and Jose took advantage of the neighborhood’s improvements and were starting to see success in the business when Jose was killed.
Diego struggled in the weeks and months after his brother’s death, first to keep the business afloat, then with deciding which path his life would take: quiet businessman or spokesman against hate crimes.
“I understand clearly that I have to make a decision,” he told the Ink in December 2009. “A decision whether I have to be more involved, showing my ideas, working to solve the problems, coming up with solutions. Or being something else, as a witness for the families that have suffered the same.”
But now, as the court prepared to play the confession of one of the men charged with Jose’s killing, Diego rose and walked out.
The video showed Scott at a table in an interrogation room, sitting next to a burly detective. Scott had asked that the session be videotaped; he was apparently going to give his side of the story, explain his role in the beating, and pin the rest on Phoenix.
In the video, Scott spoke in detail about how he and Phoenix had driven from the Bronx to Brooklyn, went to a party where they didn’t know many people, got drunk, then moved on to another party. Along the way, they encountered two Hispanic men crossing the street against a green light. Scott said that Phoenix blew the car horn at the men, one of whom was Jose Sucuzhanay. There was an argument; Jose, he said, spat into the open car window and kicked one of the rear doors. Scott got out of the car and waved a beer bottle in Jose’s face.
Jose tried to grab the bottle and there was a scuffle. Scott said he smashed the bottle over Jose’s head and ran after Romel. He said he was sure the bottle broke, but he didn’t see what happened next. When he turned around, he said, Phoenix was standing over Jose, who was lying on the sidewalk. Scott saw Phoenix raise a baseball bat high over his shoulder and bring it crashing down on Jose’s head. Scott said he could not remember how many times Phoenix swung the bat.
Those in the courtroom sat in the dark, watching the confession unfold. When the lights came on, Judge Dimango called a recess for lunch. The audience piled out of the courtroom into the lobby, but the Sucuzhanay brothers were no longer there.