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Lawyer says suspect, charged with hate crime, may argue self-defense in dancer’s death

NEW YORK (AP) — A 17-year-old pleaded not guilty Friday to hate-motivated murder in a stabbing that followed a clash over men dancing, and his lawyer said the youth “regrets what happened” and may argue he was defending himself.

Charged as an adult, Dmitriy Popov was being held without bail after his arraignment in the killing of O’Shae Sibley, a professional dancer.

Prosecutors say the killing was fueled by bigotry that was trained on Sibley and his friends as they cut loose to a Beyoncé song while pumping gas at a Brooklyn filling station. Sibley, 28, was stabbed after he and a couple of his friends confronted the defendant “to speak out and protect himself and his friends from anti-gay and anti-Black slurs,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said Thursday.

“Defending yourself from the anti-gay or anti-Black comments, arguing back, it’s not a cause for someone to take a weapon and do what was done in this case,” the prosecutor said.

But Popov’s lawyer, Mark Pollard, said Friday that it was his understanding that his client didn’t say anything hateful during the confrontation and was backing away when the trio of older, taller men approached.

“I strongly suspect that we will be going self defense and that he had a reasonable grounds to reasonably believe that he had to defend himself in this situation,” Pollard said outside court.

“He regrets what happened, certainly, but it doesn’t mean that he’s guilty of a crime,” the attorney added.

After a beach outing, Sibley and four friends stopped for gas, and one of them started dancing, prosecutors said. Popov and a few other people came out of the gas station’s store and assailed the dancers with anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs, essentially telling them to “get that gay s—t out of here,” according to prosecutors.

Trying to defuse the tension, Sibley and his friends responded that they were just enjoying themselves and had the same right to be there as did those sneering at them, prosecutors said.

Security camera videos showed the two groups exchanging words for a few minutes. Both sides walked away, though one stayed behind, recording on his phone. Sibley and two friends returned and confronted the youth, and Sibley followed him as he walked toward a sidewalk and out of the frame.

Video shows the two reappear as Sibley rushes toward the youth, who darts around him, and both again disappear from view. A moment later, Sibley walks backward into the frame, checking his side, then collapses to the sidewalk.

Sibley was from Philadelphia, where about 200 people attended his funeral Tuesday and friend Otis Pena called him “a beacon of light for a lot of us in our community.” Politicians and celebrities including Beyoncé and Spike Lee have paid tribute to Sibley since his death.

Sibley used dance to celebrate his LGBTQ identity in works such as “Soft: A Love Letter to Black Queer Men,” choreographed by Kemar Jewel. Sibley performed with the Philadelphia-based dance company Philadanco and took classes with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey Extension program in New York.

Popov, a high school senior, was born in the U.S. to a family of Russian origin, his attorney said. He described his client as a “level-headed” teen who holds two jobs and attends church.

The youth’s relatives declined to comment on the case as they left court.

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