By Matthew Huisman
Demetrius Nathaniel walked slowly into the courtroom, looking directly ahead as he took the witness stand to testify against his cousin, Keith Phoenix. Dressed in a shiny, cream-colored button-up shirt, striped tie and matching handkerchief, Nathaniel told the jurors how he was standing “no more than five feet away” as he watched his cousin beat Jose Sucuzhanay repeatedly with a baseball bat.
Nathaniel, 19, was the first witness to testify Wednesday, the second day of the trial of Keith Phoenix and Hakim Scott. The two men are charged with the hate-crime murder of Jose Sucuzhanay. Another witness, Kimbale Taylor, watched the beating helplessly from her bedroom window and called 911. Her testimony recounted the graphic deathblow that killed Jose and culminated in the playing of the 911 tape for a silent courtroom. The tape elicited watery eyes and sniffles from members of the jury.
On December 6, 2008, Nathaniel was re-shelving books at the Woodlawn Public Library where he was employed as a page. Nathaniel, who was 17 at the time, left work about 5 p.m. and headed home to prepare for a female cousin’s birthday party in Brooklyn. That evening Phoenix picked up Nathaniel from his home on Bellamy Loop, in Phoenix’s burgundy-colored Mercury Mountaineer sport utility vehicle. The two drove to pick up Scott, aka Fam, at 161st Street near Yankee Stadium. Nathaniel was riding in the passenger seat with Phoenix at the wheel and Scott in the back. But before heading to Kings County, the trio stopped off at a liquor store.
They got lost on the way to the birthday party, even with a GPS mounted on the windshield. By the time they arrived at the party, it was about midnight and there was singing, dancing and drinking. Nathaniel testified that Scott and Phoenix were drinking and eating with the rest of the guests. Nathaniel, however, did not drink, because his father was at the party. The trio decided to head back to the Bronx after a woman declined Phoenix’s offer to dance.
After leaving the party, Phoenix was driving with Nathaniel in the front seat and Scott in the back, on their return trip to the Bronx when they encountered the Sucuzhanay brothers, Jose and Romel. The two Ecuadorian immigrants were huddled together, walking northeast on Kossuth Place toward Bushwick Avenue. As the SUV drove past the brothers about 3:30 a.m., Phoenix yelled an anti-gay slur at the men “walking like a married couple.”
“We saw the two men walking towards the car and my cousin said ‘faggot ass nigger’ to the two men,” Nathaniel said with a quiver in his voice. “It was a green light. The car started to roll and I heard a kick, a bam, a boom, toward the car. And that’s when Fam got out and hit one of the guys with a bottle in his head. Then he fell and my cousin got out the car.”
Nathaniel kept his gaze focused on the Assistant District Attorney Trisha McNeill, trying not to look in the direction of his cousin who was seated at the defense table. Phoenix sat motionless throughout much of the testimony, occasionally shifting his weight in his chair, but mainly staring stone-faced ahead of him.
Nathaniel described how Phoenix took a “stick, metal pole, I don’t know what it was,” out of the rear of the SUV and repeatedly struck Jose in the back and ribs. Scott, having already hit Jose with a beer bottle, was chasing Romel toward Broadway. During the minutes in which the violence erupted, Nathaniel was “no more than five feet away” from Phoenix as he beat Jose bloody. He didn’t say anything, nor did he do anything to stop his cousin’s bloody rampage.
“The man on the ground tried to get up and that’s when my cousin tried to hit him again,” Nathaniel testified. “He hit him with the bat. I told him let’s go, we don’t belong here. Then we jumped back in the car.”
On the ride back to the Bronx, “we were discussing how the girl didn’t want to dance with him” as Scott tended to a cut on his hand using some hand towels provided by Phoenix. When asked about the man he left for dead in the street, Phoenix replied, “This man disrespected my car.”
But the night didn’t end there. After crossing back into the Bronx on the Triborough Bridge, where toll surveillance footage shows Phoenix laughing as he passed through the toll plaza, the men drove to a club. While Phoenix and Scott went to talk to some women, Nathaniel waited in the SUV. “I didn’t say nothing,” Nathaniel said. “I was in shock.”
The defendants returned about an hour later with one woman and headed to 167th Street to meet one of Scott’s lady friends. Phoenix subsequently stopped at a Hess gas station so Scott could get some money from an ATM. When Phoenix finally dropped Nathaniel off at home on Bellamy Loop, both men left the vehicle to talk privately: “He told me don’t say anything. Everything will be alright.”
After answering McNeill’s questions, the court recessed for lunch. Nathaniel stepped down from the stand and walked straight toward the doors of the courtroom, making sure to avoid the glares of Phoenix who was seated quietly next to his attorney, Philip Smallman. The defense began their cross examination when the trial resumed after lunch, beginning with Smallman who questioned Nathaniel about the day police interrogated him in February 2009.
“When they got me there I wasn’t talking,” Nathaniel said. “It took me like three hours to talk to them. I was covering up for my cousin.”
Only after Nathaniel was told his phone records placed him at the scene did he begin to cooperate with authorities. Smallman tried to discredit Nathaniel’s three written statements by questioning why police needed Nathaniel to rewrite it so many times.
Kimbale Taylor awoke in the early morning of December 7, 2008 to the sound of loud thumps outside her Kossuth Place apartment. With the lights out and her husband still asleep, Taylor went to her bedroom window and peeked out.
“I saw a male holding a bat, beating another guy that’s lying down in the street,” Taylor, an EMT of seven and a half years, testified. “When I first looked out he was hitting him on the body, the torso, the back. He was taking a beating.”
Taylor watched helplessly from 20 feet away, as the man beat Jose five times with an aluminum baseball bat and then went back to finish the job. Taylor would later pick Phoenix out of police lineup as the bat-wielding man.
“He was laying there limp, lifting his arm up,” Taylor testified. “The gentleman went back. He hit him so hard, his body jerked.”
Taylor went on to demonstrate how Phoenix went back and delivered the deathblow in graphic detail. Rising from her chair behind the witness stand, Taylor raised both hands above her head, bringing them down in a forward motion. Taylor said Phoenix struck Jose in the head three times before putting the bat back in the rear of the SUV and driving away.
Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft then introduced into evidence Taylor’s 911 call. The room fell silent as everyone waited for the audio to cue up. As the tape played out over the courtroom speaker system, Taylor sat with a blank stare on her face, lips pouted together. One juror put his face in his hands and sniffled while the juror next to him wiped a few small tears from her eyes.
“This guy was beaten with a baseball bat to the head and he’s laying there unconscious,” Taylor said in the tape as she tried to give directions to emergency services. “He’s laying there in the middle of the road, unconscious, knocked out. He’s out.”
Jose didn’t move. Taylor could see him bleeding from his head as he lay in the middle of Kossuth Place. “He was motionless, lifeless.”
Day one of our coverage: NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS AT 3:00 A.M. WITH BELLIES FULL OF BOOZE