College Point man on trial for alleged hate beating

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Rishi Maharaj, 22, of South Richmond Hill said he remembered little of the summer night almost two years ago when he was beaten nearly to death in an apparently racially motivated attack that raised a cry for a state hate crimes bill.

After the trial opened in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens this week, Maharaj was the first witness to testify against three young men who are accused of attempted murder, gang assault, first-degree assault, and aggravated harassment.

Maharaj told the 12 jurors he remembered speaking over the din of a low-flying plane as he walked with his two cousins near their South Ozone Park home. He remembers a voice telling him to "shut the f--- up," and a man running toward him. He remembered turning, raising his hands, palms out, against the oncoming attack, and finally, falling back with the repeated blows.

Maharaj, a second-generation Indo-Guyanese American who has lived in South Richmond Hill practically his entire life, recounted the details of the brutal attack on June 20, 1998 as the three defendants sat motionless at the defense table.

Nuno Martins, 21, and Luis Amorim, 24, both of South Ozone Park, and Peter DiMarco, 21, of College Point are each being tried on 11 counts. If found guilty, they face up to 25 years in prison.

The soft-spoken Maharaj said he apologized and pleaded with his attacker, whom he could not identify, to leave him alone.

"I just remember saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' I remember I asked him to leave us alone," said the slight, 22-year-old, his voice trembling. He raised his hands in demonstration to a silent courtroom. "I was holding my hands up like this, and I was just saying, 'I'm sorry.'"

Authorities immediately called the attack on Maharaj racially motivated after his cousins, who were with him, said the three men shouted racial slurs. The incident galvanized borough officials and advocacy groups nationwide in a cry for hate crimes legislation in New York state.

Maharaj said he does not recall hearing the slurs described by his cousins, or much else about the attack, which lawyers said left him with severe head trauma, a broken jaw, and post traumatic stress.

Assistant District Attorney Mariella Stanton, of the district attorney's Bias Crimes Unit, said DNA evidence would link Martins to the vicious attack whose effects, physically and emotionally, linger still.

Lawyers for Amorim and DiMarco are joining forces against the third defendant, Martins, whose house all three defendants were sitting in front of when the incident began.

Stephen Singer, the attorney for DiMarco, and Paul Senzer, the attorney for Amorim, in interviews last week depicted Amorim and DiMarco as hardworking men who are racially tolerant. They said Amorim, who at the time of the incident worked as a delivery boy for an Indian bagel-store owner, and DiMarco, who plans to marry a Korean woman, ran after Martins when they realized he was attacking Maharaj.

"Our kids are trying to break it up and pull him off," Singer said. "They're latecomers to the scene."

But Khristine Gopee, one of the cousins walking with Maharaj when he was attacked, pointed from the witness box at all three defendants when asked who the attackers were.

"They just kept on hitting him, all of them," she said, sobbing. She said Martins, who stands several inches taller than the other two defendants, yelled, "Let's go f--- up the Indians."

But Singer said he would prove to the court that Gopee was wrong in her version of the events surrounding the attack.

"I think all the evidence is going to come out and indicate this poor girl was confused," he said. "There was no attempt to murder this boy."

Benedict Gullo, the attorney for Martins, tried to cast doubt on the severity of Maharaj's injuries on cross-examination Monday. He questioned whether Maharaj already had migraines and whether other medical conditions after the attack were simply chronic symptoms.

Maharaj was beaten so severely his jaw was broken and he suffered severe trauma to the head, lawyers for both sides said.

He is 5-foot-10 and weighs 109 pounds. Maharaj said he could not eat for two months while his mouth was clamped down with a metal device. He lost all strength in his arms, he said, and the head injuries left him with constant headaches.

"I don't remember not having a headache," he told the court Monday. "I have a headache now."

As he recalled bracing for the first blows in an attack that would leave him lying in a pool of blood, Maharaj broke down completely and began to sob.

"I remember someone lunged toward me and I knew I was being hit - I don't remember," he said. He took a tissue from Judge Mark H. Spires, and removed his glasses to wipe his eyes.

"I remember seeing the sky, dark. That's the last thing I remember," he said. "That's the last."

Debasish Mishra, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Indian American Leadership Center, traveled to Queens this week to support Maharaj in his testimony.

"We hope these guys get the maximum time," he said outside the courtroom. "For a victim like Rishi, who became a victim because of things that he had no control over, it's obviously a very emotional time and you want closure."

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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