NY Daily News Defendant Phoenix: “So I killed someone -- that makes me a bad guy?”

“I feel like they’re closing the casket on me....”

Bat-slay suspect: I’m not anti-gay

By Erin Durkin, Daily News Writer
Original article
(Edited, emphasis added)

March 02 2009

He has been called a monstrous murderer, filled with bias and hate, but in a jailhouse interview on Sunday, Keith Phoenix blamed his Latino victim -- and insisted he has nothing against gays.

“I’m not a killer. I never expected anyone to die,” said Phoenix, who claims Jose Sucuzhanay, the Ecuadoran immigrant he admits beating with a bat, had a gun.

“I had to protect myself,” he said, sitting in a visiting room on Rikers Island, where he is being held on charges of second-degree murder as a hate crime.

Dressed in a tattered gray prison jumpsuit, Phoenix told a story that varies wildly from the account given by cops, community leaders and the victim’s brother.

Phoenix, 28, says Sucuzhanay, 31, and his brother Romel, 38, stepped in front of his SUV on that fateful Dec. 8 morning -- and when he blew his horn, Jose kicked the vehicle and the brothers let out a stream of curses. He said he got out to confront them.

“I saw the handle of a gun,” Phoenix said matter-of-factly. “He was reaching for a gun.”

So he grabbed a bat from the SUV and struck Jose four times, he said, and hit him twice more when he thought he was reaching for the gun again.

Phoenix, a paroled robber, swore he had no idea he killed a man until cops told him.

“Dead? Dead? If I knew he was dead I would have been going crazy,” he said. “I have remorse for the death.”

He denied police accounts that he callously blurted, “So I killed someone -- that makes me a bad guy?” when nabbed.

Police and the Sucuzhanay family scoffed at the account.

What he said is “insulting to the victims,” railed family lawyer Jose Arrufat Gracia.

“His statements are contrary to the facts. Neither brother had a weapon,” Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said.

Cops say he got out of his SUV spewing anti-gay and anti-Hispanic epithets.

Phoenix, whose lawyer also claimed his client was acting in self-defense, said he was stung by allegations he targeted the brothers because he thought they were gay. “I’m not a hateful person,” he said. “I have nothing against gay people.” He also said he is part Hispanic.

Asked about surveillance video that shows him laughing 20 minutes after the attack, he said he was bantering with a toll clerk.

“I feel like they're closing the casket on me ... because of something I had no control over,” Phoenix said. “I looked at it as just a street fight that went bad.”

With Alison Gendar