Aristeo Duenas and Gina Cook may never have crossed paths if it weren’t for the case against Kathryn Knott. But today, they were jurors No. 3 and 4. And they stood outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, telling the city that they wish they could have done more.
Knott, 25, of Bucks County, was charged in the case that became widely known as the Center City gay bashing. Twelve jurors — eight men and four women — convicted her on one charge of simple assault, two counts of reckless endangerment and conspiracy. But she was acquitted on two counts of aggravated assault.
“I hope that Zach and Andrew are OK with what we came up with,” Duenas, a 33-year-old public school teacher from Brewerytown, said of the victims, Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught. “Because we wanted to do so much more for them, but unfortunately we couldn’t.”
For more than 18 hours, things got heated and yelling ensued, largely because 10 of the 12 jurors wanted to convict Knott on all charges. Yet two of the jurors would not budge, and Cook said they weren’t basing their opinions on the law — which does note that, under certain circumstances, defendants can be held liable for the actions of others.
“That was the hard part, is [the other two jurors] weren’t basing their decisions on evidence,” Duenas said. “They were basing it on emotions and feeling bad about this poor girl. I feel bad about a lot of poor girls. But if you do something wrong, you have to be responsible for what you did.”
Added the jury forewoman: “I’m not going to talk about my fellow jurors, but it was heated. I thought we should have been in and out of there before lunch break on the first day. And I was stunned that it went the way it did.”
The forewoman was Joan Bellinger, a 67-year-old retired human resources professional, who was emotional after the verdict came down Friday and repeatedly said how appalled she was by the behavior of Knott and her group of 15 friends the night of Sept. 11, 2014.
Testimony throughout the weeklong trial showed that Knott and a group of about 15 friends left dinner that September night from La Viola in Center City, walked up 16th Street and encountered a gay couple near the intersection at Chancellor Street. Hesse and Haught testified they were on the way to pick up some pizza.
One of the members of the group said the word “faggot,” and the situation quickly escalated into a yelling match, and then a full-on altercation. Hesse and Haught testified members of the group were screaming “fucking faggot” at them, and each were punched multiple times. Hesse suffered two black eyes, and Haught was hospitalized for days with two broken cheek bones. To fix his facial bones, his jaw had to be wired shut for eight weeks.
Then, the group of friends left the scene without calling 911 and headed to a bar.
Two men who were part of her group of friends that night — Philip R. Williams, 25, and Kevin J. Harrigan, 27 — accepted plea deals that kept them out of prison and saddled them probation and community service. Knott declined an offered plea deal and elected to go to trial.
As part of her defense, Knott testified in her own case and contended that she didn’t hit, punch or strike anyone. She also claimed she didn’t once use a gay slur throughout the altercation, and her defense attorney attempted to paint her as an innocent bystander.
But some jurors didn’t buy it. Duenas said most of the jurors were “disturbed” by her testimony, and called it “embarrassing.”
“I think in her mind, she just had no idea why she was there because she saw nothing wrong with what she did, and that is so bad,” Bellinger said. “She didn’t appear apologetic. It was like, ‘what is the big deal?’ And it was a big deal. It was a big deal for everybody. And I am so offended by everything about her.”
Duenas added that what sealed the deal for him in voting for a conviction for Knott was her own testimony. When prosecutors cross examined her, they asked if she heard an ambulance go by as the group was walking away from the scene of the incident. When she responded “yes,” they asked Knott if she thought that it was for the man who members of her group had just beaten to a bloody pulp.
She said “no,” because ambulances are “common” in Center City. Duenas said she’s wrong about that.
“They’re at 16th and Chancellor. That’s not a violent part of the city,” he said. “Well, it wasn’t. It became one.”
Cook said she was also troubled by tweets that were brought into evidence, four of which were anti-gay. Knott explained away each one during her testimony, claiming phrases like “#gay #ew” and “#dyke” aren’t hateful language.
“I think it’s so easy for the word ‘gay’ to be thrown around, and it’s just horrific,” Cook, a 36-year-old bank teller from Roxborough, said. “And to watch her explain away this hate speech, in my eyes, it’s just saddening. I hope that whatever sentence she receives, that she will have time to think about how hurtful words are.”
Knott will be sentenced for the crimes she was convicted of on Feb. 8. While each of the charges she was convicted of were misdemeanors, Assistant District Attorney Michael Barry said jail time “is on the table.”
All three jurors who spoke after the verdict was released said they would support Knott spending time in jail. And Bellinger didn’t stop at Knott, but said the testimony was a de facto indictment on all the people who were with her that night.
“Every one of them should have been in there. Every one of them should do jail time,” she said. “None of them should have gotten off. They could have grabbed those people, and they could have pulled them off of them, and they could have called the police and they could have done something.
“They did nothing.”