- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

POTTSVILLE, Pa. | 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 applause 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, after 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.

“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 Mr. 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.” Mr. Piekarsky’s attorney declined comment on the possibility of federal charges against the teens.

Prosecutors had cast Mr. Ramirez as the victim of a gang of drunken white teens motivated by a dislike of their small coal town’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But the jury sided with defense attorneys, who called Mr. Ramirez the aggressor and characterized the brawl as a street fight that ended tragically.

Jury foreman Eric Macklin said he sympathized with Mr. Ramirez’s loved ones, but that the evidence pointed to an acquittal.

“I feel bad for Luis’ friends and family. I know they feel they haven’t gotten justice,” he said.

The case exposed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 that has lured Hispanic residents with cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Ramirez, who began yelling in Spanish and dialing friends on his cell phone. Mr. Scully admitted to shouting ethnic slurs. The verbal sparring soon turned into a physical altercation as Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Piekarsky traded blows, though prosecutors and defense attorneys disputed who threw the first punch.

Mr. Donchak then entered the fray and wound up on top of Mr. Ramirez. Prosecutors said he pummeled Mr. Ramirez, holding a small piece of metal in his fist to give his punches more power. Defense attorneys said Mr. Donchak tried to break up the fight between Mr. Piekarsky and Mr. Ramirez and denied he had a weapon.

The two sides eventually went their separate ways, but Mr. Scully kept yelling at Mr. Ramirez, leading the immigrant to charge after the group. Colin Walsh, 17, then hit Mr. Ramirez, knocking him out. Mr. Walsh pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Mr. Ramirez’s civil rights and could be out of prison in four years.

Defense attorney Fred Fanelli accused prosecutors of ignoring exculpatory evidence, including statements by two of Mr. Ramirez’s friends shortly after the fight. He also said prosecutors offered leniency to key witnesses.

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