Jury deliberations begin in Pa. hate crime case

Two men charged with a hate crime in the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant waited Thursday to learn their fate, more than two years after the assault angered Hispanic groups and exposed simmering ethnic tensions in a small former mining town.

A jury in Scranton began deliberating Thursday morning in the federal trial of Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky. They are charged with violating the civil rights of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant who died in July 2008 following a confrontation with a group of white high school football players in Shenandoah.

Prosecutors alleged that Donchak and Piekarsky beat and kicked Ramirez because they didn't like Hispanics and wanted them out of their town. Donchak is also charged in a plot to cover up the attack and obstruct an FBI investigation.

"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 fight stemmed from youthful aggression, not ethnic hatred, and cast Ramirez as a hothead more than willing to fight.

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 an all-white jury acquitted them of serious state charges last year. Hispanic activists decried the May 2009 verdict in Schuylkill County Court, 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.

Prosecutors said Piekarsky delivered 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.

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 are charged with a hate crime under the Fair Housing Act. Donchak faces two additional counts that he conspired with Shenandoah police to cover up the crime. The accused officers are scheduled to go on trial early next year.

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," said Donchak's attorney, William Fetterhoff, 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."