Prosecutors called the beating death of an illegal immigrant from Mexico a hate crime, and they urged an all-white jury in Pennsylvania coal country to punish two white teenagers for their roles in the attack.
Instead, the jury found the teens not guilty of all serious charges, a decision that elicited cheers and claps from the defendants’ families and friends _ and cries of outrage from the victim’s.
Brandon Piekarsky, 17, was acquitted of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, while Derrick Donchak, 19, was acquitted of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Both were convicted of simple assault late Friday following a trial in which jurors were left to sort out the facts of an epithet-filled brawl that pitted popular football players against a 25-year-old Hispanic man, Luis Ramirez, who appeared willing to fight.
A representative of Ramirez’s family said the jurors got it wrong.
“There’s been a complete failure of justice,” said Gladys Limon, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who attended the trial and informed Ramirez’s family of the verdict. “It’s just outrageous and very difficult to understand how any juror could have had reasonable doubt.”
On Saturday the group’s interim president, Henry Solano, called on the Justice Department to “bring justice to the Ramirez family and send a strong message that violence targeting immigrants will not be tolerated.” Piekarsky’s attorney declined comment on the possibility of federal charges against the teens.
Prosecutors had cast Ramirez as the victim of a gang of drunken white teens motivated by a dislike of their small coal town’s growing Hispanic population. They said he was killed by a kick to the head from Piekarsky after he’d been knocked unconscious by another teen.
The jury evidently sided with defense attorneys, who called Ramirez the aggressor and characterized the brawl as a street fight that ended tragically.
Jury foreman Eric Macklin said he sympathized with Ramirez’s loved ones but that the evidence pointed to an acquittal.
“I feel bad for Luis’s friends and family. I know they feel they haven’t gotten justice,” he said.
The simple assault convictions carry possible one- to two-year prison sentences. Donchak was also convicted of corruption of minors and an alcohol charge, both stemming from his purchase of beer and malt liquor that he drank with his underage friends the night of the fight. Sentencing has not been scheduled.
The case exposed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 that has lured Hispanic residents drawn by cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Ramirez moved to the town about seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico, working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries.
The 2000 U.S. Census showed that Schuylkill County’s population was 96.6 percent white, with 1.1 percent of the county listed as Hispanic or Latino.
The fight began late July 12 when a half-dozen teens, all Shenandoah residents who played football at Shenandoah Valley High School, were walking home from a block party and came across Ramirez and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park.
Brian Scully, 18, asked the girl, “Isn’t it a little late for you to be out?” That enraged Ramirez, who began yelling in Spanish and dialing friends on his cell phone. Scully admitted shouting ethnic slurs. The verbal sparring soon turned into a physical altercation as Ramirez and Piekarsky traded blows, though prosecutors and defense attorneys disputed who threw the first punch.
Donchak then entered the fray and wound up on top of Ramirez. Prosecutors said he pummeled Ramirez, holding a small piece of metal in his fist to give his punches more power. Defense attorneys said Donchak tried to break up the fight between Piekarsky and Ramirez and denied he had a weapon.
The two sides eventually went their separate ways. But Scully kept yelling at Ramirez, leading the immigrant to charge after the group.
Colin Walsh, 17, then hit Ramirez, knocking him out.
“Does Mr. Ramirez fit the description of an innocent soul who just happened to get picked on by a group of kids?” Piekarsky defense attorney Fred Fanelli asked jurors in closing arguments. “He’s the only adult, and he makes some bad choices.”
Fanelli accused prosecutors of ignoring exculpatory evidence, including statements by two of Ramirez’s friends shortly after the fight that the kicker wore white sneakers _ the color Scully was wearing.
Fanelli also said prosecutors offered leniency to key witnesses _ including Scully and Walsh, who admitted knocking Ramirez unconscious with a punch to the face _ giving them a strong motive to lie.
Walsh pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Ramirez’s civil rights and could be out of prison in four years. On the witness stand, he identified Piekarsky as the kicker. So did Scully, who told jurors he tried to kick the immigrant but missed. Scully is charged in juvenile court with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.
Fanelli derided the prosecution testimony as “bought and paid for.”
Robert Franz, the prosecutor, denied any misconduct on the part of the district attorney’s office.
Displaying a candid photo of Ramirez, Franz told the jurors, “He was assaulted and he was beaten, and he was killed for walking the streets of Shenandoah. He didn’t deserve that.”