Phoenix and co-defendant Hakim Scott, 25, are accused of shouting Hispanic and gay slurs as Jose Sucuzhanay and his brother walked arm-in-arm to keep warm on Dec. 7 in Brooklyn.
Police said Scott hit Sucuzhanay with a beer bottle, and Phoenix savagely beat him with an aluminum baseball bat.
Phoenix's lawyer, Jay Schwitzman, said after the arraignment that Phoenix was protecting himself, believing Sucuzhanay (pronounced Suh-COO'-chen-eye) was reaching for a gun in his waistband during the scuffle.
Schwitzman said his client and Scott were sitting in Phoenix's SUV when Sucuzhanay and his brother kicked the vehicle. Scott then began fighting with the brothers, Schwitzman said.
Schwitzman said Phoenix was trying to break up the fracas when he thought Sucuzhanay went for a weapon.
"It was not a hate crime. I know the police have a different version," Schwitzman said.
Police said there was no information to support Schwitzman's account.
Phoenix was found hiding Friday in a suburban New York apartment. Police had released a video showing him grinning as he paid a bridge toll shortly after Sucuzhanay, a 31-year-old real estate broker, was brutally attacked.
Schwitzman said Phoenix is sorry for what happened to Sucuzhanay.
"He's remorseful," the lawyer said. "It's a serious matter. He's not laughing."
Scott has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder as a hate crime.
If convicted, the defendants could face 25 years to life in prison.
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