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Trial begins in attacks on homeless men

Two men charged with beating a homeless man to death and attacking two others intended to kill because they hit the victims in the head with baseball bats, a prosecutor said Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two men charged with beating a homeless man to death and viciously attacking two others intended to kill because they repeatedly hit the victims in the head with baseball bats, a prosecutor said Thursday.

However, defense attorneys for the two men countered during opening arguments that their clients never meant to do serious harm that night.

Norris Gaynor, 45, was beaten to death in the 2006 rampage that received national attention after surveillance camera footage of one of the nonfatal attacks was widely broadcast. The images also helped lead detectives to defendants Brian Hooks, 21, and Thomas Daugherty, 19.

Prosecutor Peter Holden said Gaynor’s skull was crushed and the other two homeless men were beaten in the head, key evidence in whether the attacks were premeditated.

“Every blow had an intended purpose,” Holden said in the trial’s opening statement.

Hooks and Daugherty face life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. The trial is expected to last about four weeks.

The ferocity of the assaults shocked homeless advocates, who said the video showed the dangers faced every night by those living on the streets.

Holden said Daugherty and Hooks and two other youths were smoking marijuana and drinking vodka when they decided in the early morning hours of Jan. 12, 2006, to go cruising and “beat up some bums” in Fort Lauderdale. He said Daugherty struck the most damaging blows to the men.

'They thought it was fun'
Attorneys for Hooks and Daugherty admitted the group decided to “beat on some homeless guys” that night but did not mean serious harm and that witnesses differ on who struck fatal blows on Gaynor.

“The intention was never to kill,” said Michael Gottlieb, attorney for Daugherty. “They thought it was fun to mess with some homeless people, and that’s what they set out to do.”

Jacques Pierre, 61, was assaulted first in the attack captured on video. He has recovered and is expected to testify.

Key testimony is also expected from the two other youths who were with Hooks and Daugherty that night but had lesser roles in the attacks. One of them, 21-year-old William Ammons, pleaded guilty in May to felony murder and aggravated assault and faces at least 10 years behind bars.

Another group skateboarding nearby said they saw Hooks, Daugherty and the others running from the Pierre attack. “They were laughing,” Holden said of the suspects.

Hooks’ lawyer Jeremy Kroll said the widely seen video also played a major role in the police decision to zero in on his client, who witnesses said initially did not take part in Gaynor’s killing. The defense described a rush to judgment in an atmosphere of intense media attention.

Ammons confessed to hitting a third man, 51-year-old Raymond Perez, with a plastic sword and that he fired shots from a paintball gun at Gaynor. But Holden said Ammons did not hit anyone with a baseball bat or other deadly weapon, a key factor in his plea to lesser charges.

No death penalty sought
Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against any of the three because Daugherty was 17 at the time of the crime and was ineligible for capital punishment.

Circuit Judge Cynthia G. Imperato turned down a defense request to move the case to another city because of the intense media coverage. More than 600 prospective jurors were interviewed over several weeks before a panel was finally selected on Wednesday.