PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Zachary Hesse and his boyfriend were moving on from a frozen yogurt stop toward a pizza joint in the city's Gayborhood when they came across eight to 10 young adults out on the town.
One of the revelers, using profanity and slurs, asked if they were gay, Hesse testified Tuesday. Hesse said they were, echoing the same crude language, and they soon found themselves surrounded.
Hesse said he was pushed, pushed back and was promptly punched in the face.
"After that, it just kind of got messy," Hesse, 28, testified before a judge upheld felony assault and conspiracy charges against two young men and a woman, the daughter of a suburban police chief. "(I felt) terrified."
In a matter of minutes, boyfriend Andy Haught was lying in a pool of blood with a broken jaw and broken cheekbones. A nearby resident called 911, and the group took off.
The incident in downtown Philadelphia's tony Rittenhouse neighborhood swirled on news and social media sites in September. It has alternately been described as a routine street fight or a homophobic attack in a state that doesn't include sexual orientation in its hate crime law.
"I think this court knows, it's going to be an interesting trial," Assistant District Attorney Mike Barry said, asking Common Pleas Judge Charles Hayden to leave the answer to a jury.
The judge agreed and ordered the defendants to return to court in January to enter pleas.
Security video posted online by police helped identify the group, many of them friends from their days at a suburban Catholic high school. Defense lawyers vow to mount a vigorous defense for their clients — 24-year-old Philip Williams, of Warminster; 24-year-old Kathryn Knott, of Southampton; and 26-year-old Kevin Harrigan, of Warrington.
In court Tuesday, defense lawyers compared the case to a street brawl, arguing that both parties took part.
"We don't have a conspiracy, a wolf pack, a group of young people seeking to beat people up on the streets of Philadelphia," defense lawyer Fortunato Perri Jr. argued.
Prosecutors took a darker view and called the initial query about the men's sexuality "fighting words."
"They got attacked just for being who they were," Barry said.
He said defendant Harrigan ignited the fight when he hurled a slur at Hesse and threw the first punch.
Witness Geoff Nagle, who was looking out a third-floor window, said he saw a woman pointing a finger at one of the victims and then heard three to four punches land. He took a cellphone photo and called 911.
Prosecutors said they believe co-defendant Williams moved through the crowd to "sucker-punch" Haught. However, the defense said he went to Knott's aid after Haught struck her.
"Phil Williams is not initially an aggressor here," Perri argued. "He gets involved after a female is punched. ... That is actually justified, under the circumstances."