SCRANTON, Pa. – Prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed Wednesday over whether two Pennsylvania men were motivated by hatred of Hispanics when they took part in the fatal assault of an illegal Mexican immigrant two years ago.
Brandon Piekarsky, now 18, and Derrick Donchak, now 20, are charged with a federal hate crime in the July 2008 attack on 25-year-old Luis Ramirez, who died after brawling with a group of white high school athletes in the old mining town of Shenandoah.
As their trial opened in federal court in Scranton, Justice Department prosecutor Myesha Braden approached jurors and said, in a slow and deliberate voice, "Tell your f------ Mexican friends to get the f--- out of Shenandoah!"
Those were the words, said Braden, that Piekarsky screamed as he beat and kicked Ramirez in the head.
She said Piekarsky and Donchak attacked Ramirez because they held "racial animosity" toward the town's burgeoning Hispanic population. The defendants are charged under the federal Fair Housing Act, which, she said, guarantees minorities "the right to live wherever they want and remain free from racial discrimination."
The defendants — who have already beat serious state charges in the case — say Ramirez's ethnicity had nothing to do with the melee. Defense attorney James Swetz told the all-white jury of six men and six women that the fight instead stemmed from "alcohol, youth and testosterone" — and nothing more.
"These are the themes of the case. Not race, and certainly not federally guaranteed housing rights," he said in his opening statement. Swetz flatly denied that Piekarsky made the statement that Braden attributed to him.
To prove their case, the government will have to show that Piekarsky and Donchak attacked Ramirez because of his ethnicity in violation of his federally protected right to live in Shenandoah.
Donchak's attorney, William Fetterhoff, said the teens were drunk on malt liquor and spoiling for a fight — and found a willing participant in Ramirez. He noted that Piekarsky had nearly come to blows earlier that night with a white middle-aged firefighter at a block party.
"God knows, Ramirez didn't deserve to die," Fetterhoff said. "But that's not why we're here. ... This was a tragic and needless event. A stupid fight."
He said Ramirez died because of an "excess of aggression" on all sides.
The fight began late July 12, 2008, when a half-dozen teens, all Shenandoah residents who played football at Shenandoah Valley High School, were walking home from the block party and came across Ramirez and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park.
Brian Scully, then 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 to shouting ethnic slurs. The verbal sparring soon turned into a physical altercation as Ramirez and Piekarsky traded blows.
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.
The two sides eventually went their separate ways. But Scully kept yelling at Ramirez, leading Ramirez to charge after the group and leap on Scully.
Colin Walsh, then 17, then came at Ramirez from the side and delivered "a tremendous sucker punch" that knocked him out, Fetterhoff said Wednesday. "He falls over, a dead weight, and by tragedy hits his head with some force on the street."
Prosecutors claim Piekarsky then kicked Ramirez in the head. The defense blames Scully for the kick. Walsh and Scully have already pleaded guilty for their roles in the beating and are expected to testify for the prosecution.
Donchak is also charged with conspiring with Shenandoah police officers — including Patrolman Jason Hayes, who was engaged to Piekarsky's mother — to obstruct an FBI investigation into the crime.
Braden said Donchak and the other teens concocted a cover-up story that left out the ethnic slurs they shouted, the lopsided 4-on-1 nature of the fight, and the kick to Ramirez's head.
An all-white jury cleared the defendants of serious state charges last year. Piekarsky was acquitted of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, while Donchak beat aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation charges. Both were convicted of simple assault. The 2009 verdict angered civil rights groups and Gov. Ed Rendell, who asked for a Justice Department prosecution.