SCRANTON, Pa. – More than a year after their acquittal on state charges, two Pennsylvania men were convicted of a federal hate crime and could be sentenced to life in prison for beating and kicking a Mexican immigrant who died of his injuries.
The family of 25-year-old illegal immigrant Luis Ramirez applauded the verdict Thursday as a belated measure of justice, while defense attorneys criticized the government's pursuit of charges in a case already once decided and promised an appeal.
An all-white jury found that Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky, former high school football players in the small town of Shenandoah, violated Ramirez's civil rights when they assaulted him on July 12, 2008. The jury also convicted Donchak of two other counts related to a plot to cover up the beating.
Crystal Dillman, who had two children with Ramirez, told The Associated Press she "couldn't be happier."
"My family finally gets justice, well, some justice and Luis can finally rest a little bit easier in peace knowing that some justice was served," Dillman said. "It's like a burden's lifted off my chest to know that something was done for Luis."
Prosecutors alleged that Donchak, Piekarsky and two other white teens beat and kicked Ramirez because they didn't like Hispanics and wanted them out of their town.
"They showed no remorse that night ... no sense of responsibility for having beaten a man to the point of death," Justice Department prosecutor Myesha Braden told jurors Wednesday in her closing argument.
The defense said the melee stemmed from youthful aggression, not ethnic hatred, and cast Ramirez as a hothead more than willing to fight.
Defense attorneys William Fetterhoff and James Swetz called the verdict disappointing.
Thomas E. Perez, chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the jury demonstrated that "violence committed because of a victim's race, national origin or ethnicity will not be tolerated."
Witnesses gave conflicting, and at times confusing, accounts of the late-night brawl that pitted Ramirez — a short, stout man nicknamed "Caballo," Spanish for horse — against four drunken teenagers during a random encounter on the street.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that youth, testosterone and alcohol played a role. But they argued over the mindset of a quartet of belligerent teens who called Ramirez a "spic," told him to go back to Mexico and assaulted the immigrant with their fists and feet.
Federal charges were brought against Piekarsky and Donchak after another all-white jury acquitted them of serious state crimes, including third-degree murder in Piekarsky's case. Hispanic activists decried the May 2009 verdict, calling Ramirez's death part of a rising tide of hate crimes against Latinos. They and Gov. Ed Rendell appealed for a Justice Department prosecution.
Fetterhoff complained Thursday about the second prosecution.
"It is a surprising verdict, in view of the first verdict in Schuylkill County Court," said Fetterhoff, Donchak's attorney. "This is exactly the problem when defendants are subject to being tried twice on the same facts."
Piekarsky was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he'd been knocked unconscious by another teen, Colin Walsh, who pleaded guilty in federal court and testified against his childhood friends last week. A fourth teen, Brian Scully, pleaded guilty in juvenile court and also testified for the prosecution.
After the fight, the teens met and hatched a plan in which they would falsely tell police that no one was drunk, did any kicking or used any racial slurs.
Both defendants were convicted of a hate crime under the Fair Housing Act. Donchak also was convicted of two counts that he conspired with Shenandoah police to cover up the crime. The accused officers are scheduled to go on trial early next year.
Donchak, 20, sobbed as the verdict was read. Piekarsky, 18, put his head in his hands. Both were led away in handcuffs and ordered held behind bars pending their sentencing on Jan. 24.
The trial cast an unflattering light on Shenandoah, a hardscrabble town about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Witnesses described a racially tense atmosphere as Hispanics swelled the population, attracted by cheap housing and jobs in factories and farm fields.
"Shenandoah was a tough town in 1880," Fetterhoff said, describing a boom period when coal mining attracted hordes of uneducated European immigrants.
"It was a tough town in 1950. And it was a tough town in 2008," he told jurors. "For better or worse."