Trial opens for woman accused in Center City assault of gay couple

 Kathryn Knott (center), one of three defendants charged with assaulting a gay couple in Center City, leaves the courthouse. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

Kathryn Knott (center), one of three defendants charged with assaulting a gay couple in Center City, leaves the courthouse. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

“You’re responsible for your actions,” said Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Allison Ruth, turning away from the jury and staring down defendant Kathryn Knott on the first day of the young woman’s trial.

The extent of those actions in connection with the brutal beating of two gay men in Center City last September will be up to a jury.

Attorneys with the district attorney’s office say that Knott, along with her friends Kevin Harrington and Phil Williams, ganged up on the victims, each throwing punches and participating some way in the assault.

But that differs starkly from the account given by Knott’s defense attorney, who contends that while the 25-year-old witnessed the beating, she never attacked anyone.

Harrington and Williams agreed to plea deals in exchange for avoiding jail time. The two were put on probation with mandatory community service at a center for gays and lesbians.

Among the witnesses called to the stand on Thursday was Zachary Hesse, one of the two victims in the September beating.

He blurrily remembered the evening as a “terrifying incident” that started as he and his boyfriend, Andy Haught, were on their way to grab a slice of pizza in Center City around Broad and Locust streets.

State prosecutors say Harrington, one of a group of suburban young adults who came to Philadelphia to celebrate a birthday, provoked Hesse by asking if Haught was his boyfriend in a crude and insulting way.

Hesse exchanged words with Harrington, and they closed in on each other. Soon after, Harrington’s group, which prosecutors say included Knott and more than a dozen others, assaulted Hesse and Haught, who later had his jaw wired shut as a result of the beating.

Hesse recalled seeing Haught lying facedown in a puddle of blood and thinking that he was dead.

On the witness stand, Hesse held up the blood-stained clothes that he and Haught wore that night and was asked to describe the items.

Attorneys for the commonwealth and Knott’s defense team played several shaky videos of parts of the violent episode captured with smartphones and asked Hesse to analyze the grainy scenes.

Throughout the day, Knott’s attorney, Louis Busico, hammered on two points: She can’t be responsible for her friends’ action — “she is not their keeper, or baby-sitter,” he said. Further, so many people were involved  in the chaos that it’s difficult to pinpoint who threw punches when, implying that perhaps the victims and witnesses who say Knott was involved are mistaken.

Not so, said Ruth. The most serious charge Knott’s facing, aggravated assault, essentially says that “if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound,” Ruth said.

During opening statements, Ruth said some of Knott’s social media activity from years past will be used to demonstrate a bias against gays.

“You can tell a lot about a person from their Facebook page, or their Twitter account,” she said. “They’re not just words.”

In response, Knott’s attorney Busico said, “it’s all about distracting you. The tweets are old, out of context.”

The exchange follows a dispute between the commonwealth and Busico over what social media activity should be admitted as evidence in the case against Knott.

Judge Roxanne Covington ruled that since the assault was allegedly motivated by gay discrimination, any tweets that could be read as homophobic could be admitted.

Busico’s planned witnesses include some who will testify to Knott having, as he put it: “an excellent reputation of being a peaceful person.”

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