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Know Your Rights
Source: Edge New York
Subject: TGNCIQ Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Mistrial in 2nd Man Accused of NYC Gay-Bashing Murder

Last week, Hakim Scott–a defendant in the killing of Ecuadorian immigrant José Sucuzhañay–was found guilty of manslaughter, but not of an anti-gay or racially motivated hate crime. On May 11, the judge overseeing the separate trial of the other man accused in the case, Keith Phoenix, declared a mistrial after three days of jury deliberations, when one juror refused to continue, reported the New York Times that same day.

The announcement from Brooklyn State Supreme Court Justice Patricia M. DiMango of State Supreme Court was made at around 9:00 p.m., the article said, with DiMango saying, "I can’t see any other action than to declare a mistrial at this time." A new trial is set for June 15. Phoenix, 30, remains in custody.

The article recounted details from the night of December 7, 2008, when Phoenix and Scott encountered José Sucuzhañay and his brother Romel, who were accompanied by José’s girlfriend. The brothers were on their way home from a church function, and were huddled together for warmth under a coat they were using as a blanket; Phoenix and Scott were passing by in an SUV; the driver, Phoenix, yelled an anti-gay slur at the men, who responded with a kick to the vehicle.

It was at that point that Scott got out of the SUV and broke a bottle over José’s head, the Times article said. Scott then chased with Romel with the bottle while Phoenix exited the vehicle, took an aluminum baseball bat from the vehicle’s trunk, and proceeded to beat José. The beating was so severe that José’s head was split open and his skull fractured; he later died. Phoenix later claimed that he took the bat to José because he thought that the downed man was about to pull a gun.

Scott was found guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder or hate crimes charges. He faces up to 40 years at sentencing. Another of José’s brothers, Diego Sucuzhañay, told EDGE after the verdict that Scott’s "initial motivation was hate, and that’s what motivated him to jump out of his car and attack him." Diego also dismissed claims from the two accused killers that Phoenix took a bat to José out of self defense, saying, "There is no evidence my brothers provoked them at all. They were just walking by."

The jury in Phoenix’s case was also deliberating as to whether the slaying was murder or manslaughter, according to Phoenix’s lawyer, Philip J. Smallman. The article said that the jury had made repeated requests to review testimony and had asked for clarifications as to what constitutes a hate crime.

"My family, we feel very worried. The evidence was there," Romel told the press by way of a translator. "I hope that we have success in the new one."

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, which works with immigrants and LGBTs, referenced the contention by prosecutors in the case that Phoenix’s actions in taking a baseball bat to José were deliberate.Archila told EDGE in an interview, "If people can’t recognize that as an intentional reaction, I don’t know." Added Archila, "It makes me very worried."

Marietta Phoenix said that the mistrial as "justice," and told the press, "My son is not an animal as everyone is making him out to be." Added Ms. Phoenix, "I think justice was served at least a little bit."

Anti-Gay Crimes on the Rise-Sometimes with Straight Victims

FBI statistics show that anti-GLBT violence has risen in the past few years. The Associated Press took note of the trend in a Dec. 24, 2008, article, adding that it was uncertain whether the increased in reported anti-gay attacks reflected higher levels of violence or whether GLBTs are now reporting violent crimes targeting them more than they used to. But under-reporting was seen as still being a factor, because GLBTs often do not go to police or self-identify if they do report assaults; also, some states do not track hate crimes targeting GLBTs. Among other crimes in 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King, an openly gay California middle schooler, was shot to death in a classroom on Feb. 12 by schoolmate Brendan McInerney, 14, a member of the Young Marines. McInerney allegedly shot the flamboyant King for flirting with him; media reports said that King, who faced daily anti-gay harassment, flirted with his tormentors as a defense mechanism.

On Dec. 13, 2008, a San Francisco area lesbian was allegedly gang raped. The woman, identified only as Jane Doe, was reportedly abducted by a group of young men, who raped her one after the other in her own parked car. The assailants allegedly hurled anti-gay abuse at her as the rapes continued, and then stole her car, leaving her naked on the street. Two weeks later, four suspects were taken into custody by police, two of them 16-year-olds who faced trial as adults. A third suspect was 22; the fourth was 32.

Gender Public Advocacy Coalition executive director Riki Wilchins told the Associated Press that violence against gays is often carried out by groups of young men who select their targets based on a perception of effeminacy. They also target trans individuals. "These assailants are looking to eradicate and exterminate something that enrages them, and that is what makes them hate crimes," said Wilchins.

The New York City Anti-Violence Project’s Sharon Stapel agreed, telling the Associated Press in a Dec. 12, 2008, article that anti-gay violence was spiking, in part, because 2008 was an election year that featured high-profile anti-gay ballot initiatives, including the extremely divisive Proposition 8 campaign, California’s voter-approved repeal of previously-existing marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

"Election years are always violent years for us because of wedge issues," Stapel explained. "With increased visibility comes increased vulnerability to LGBT stereotypes and violence. We’ve seen some of the most violent hate crimes that we’ve seen in a while" during the 2008 election cycle.

The Sucuzhañay case is seen as an example of how anti-gay violence can spill over into the straight world, when straights are mistaken for gays. A March 31, 2009, EDGE article examines this phenomenon, noting that straight victims of anti-gay hate generate more headlines than to actual gay victims of homophobic attackers.

Radford University criminal law professor Dr. Todd Burke told EDGE that people from different cultural backgrounds sometimes ran afoul of violent homophobes in America because they had not been inculcated into the social codes regarding what is seen as "gay" conduct. "People coming in from Europe and walking the streets of America might be perceived as gay because their culture allows the holding of hands or kissing on the cheeks as a greeting," Burke said. "If that is done on the streets in certain parts of America, that might label people as gay even though they are not." Burke also noted that anti-gay attacks often seem to spring from "an issue with public displays of affection," adding, "Our society seems to be more threatened by gays than lesbians. It doesn’t mean that lesbians haven’t been attacked, but more documented cases seem to be of males suffering the consequences."

But anti-gay violence–whether it targets straights or GLBTs–can also bring communities together. It has become common for marches and vigils to take place following anti-gay hate crimes, with communities refusing to allow themselves to be broadly labeled by the actions of violent homophobes. A large part of that response comes from local gays, but straights also stand up against hate in such communities.

In Brooklyn last year, a street corner was re-named in honor of José Sucuzhañay. The slain Ecuadorian immigrant’s family issued a statement calling the re-dubbing "a great opportunity to show that we as a community are united and reject deeply the intolerance of diversity, homophobia and all forms of crime in our neighborhoods."

Echoed openly gay New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, "Immigrants contribute immensely to our city. They are a vibrant, important part of our city and we must do more to respect and remember them."