Isaam Sharef's video of Bayna-Lekheim El-Amin bring a chair down over Jonathan Snipe and Ethan York-Adams' heads. | ISAAM SHAREF VIA YOUTUBE.COM
The trial of a man accused of assault on two gay men in a Chelsea restaurant last year opened with the defense arguing that the man acted in self-defense after he was set upon by one of the two, who had been drinking excessively.
“We all agree here that everyone has a right to defend themselves,” said Percy Gayanilo, the attorney for Bayna-Lekheim El-Amin, who was 41 at the time of the incident, during his May 17 opening statement in Manhattan Supreme Court. “This is a case where Jonathan Snipes attacked… You will see in the video that he never withdrew his attack.”
El-Amin is facing five lower level felony assault charges in a May 5, 2015 altercation he had with Snipes, 32 at the time, and his partner, Ethan York-Adams, then 25, in the Dallas BBQ restaurant at Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street. None of the felonies is charged as a hate crime.
The dispute began after Snipes became upset in the restaurant on receiving some news about a sick relative. As he and York-Adams either quarreled or simply discussed the news, one of them spilled a drink. When El-Amin, who was sitting with friends nearby, allegedly made a comment about them and used an anti-gay slur, Snipes went to his table and struck El-Amin with his purse, Leah Saxtein, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting El-Amin, told jurors during her opening statement.
Both sides are relying on a video of the incident, which has not yet been played in court, to prove their case.
In the defense recounting, Snipes did not stop there. He tried to punch El-Amin at least twice and can be seen reaching for a knife on a table, Gayanilo told jurors. And before Snipes struck El-Amin, he was fighting with York-Adams about leaving the restaurant, the defense attorney said.
“You don’t come around a table and punch a guy in the face if your intent is to resolve or talk it out,” Gayanilo said.
He also told jurors that both men refused medical treatment that night. Snipes saw a doctor three days later, and York-Adams saw a doctor a week later.
“Mr. Ethan Adams, he didn’t see a doctor for a week, and now he wants to come here and say, ‘Yeah, I got seriously injured,’” Gayanilo said.
A photo of Bayna-Lekheim El-Amin released by the police. | NYPD DCPI
The prosecution story is that El-Amin is not charged for any action he took in response to Snipes striking him with the purse. That was, in Saxtein’s recounting, part one of the encounter. In parts two and three, El-Amin was no longer defending himself, he was attacking the two men in a “vicious assault,” Saxtein said.
“At no point was this defendant trying to defend himself,” she said. “You will find no justification in this case.”
Saxtein told jurors that El-Amin first responded by throwing Snipes on the floor and he “stomped on him.” Some 20 seconds passed, and El-Amin renewed his attack against both men. Finally, Snipes and York-Adams were standing near their table with their backs to El-Amin who then picked up a heavy wooden chair and struck both men on the head with the chair.
“Without hesitation, he smashed the chair over the victims’ heads,” Saxtein said. “He hit them so hard that the sound of the chair hitting their heads was audible throughout the restaurant.”
El-Amin was driven by rage in his attack, Saxtein said.
“The defendant was furious, he was angry and humiliated,” she said. “The defendant just couldn’t let it go.”
When questioning Richard Schneider, the detective from the police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force who led the investigation, Gayanilo suggested that no other witness heard El-Amin make an anti-gay comment. While no one has said that El-Amin is gay, Gayanilo said his client has been “a leader in the LGBT community for 19 years.”
The assault prompted a vigorous response from state and local politicians, including City Councilmember Corey Johnson and State Senator Brad Hoylman, who joined a protest and leafleting outside the restaurant. Hoylman and Johnson are gay and represent Chelsea. The attack was widely reported in the gay and mainstream media as a hate crime.