updated 5/2/2009 12:05:40 AM ET 2009-05-02T04:05:40

An all-white jury on Friday acquitted two Pennsylvania teenagers of all serious charges against them stemming from the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant last summer.

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.

The defendants hugged each other after the verdicts were read, and friends and family members clapped and cheered, leading to a rebuke from the judge and sheriff's deputies.

After four days of often conflicting testimony, 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 who appeared willing to fight.

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

Frederick Fanelli, Piekarsky's attorney, said he was "absolutely thrilled" with the verdict.

"This has been a long, long hard-fought case, highly charged obviously with all the media," he said. "It just couldn't be a better ending for us."

Schuylkill County District Attorney James Goodman said he was disappointed with the outcome.

'Difficult case'
"It was a very difficult case for a number of reasons. We presented the best case we could. We would have liked a better result," he said.

Goodman added there were "many problems with the evidence," but declined to go into specifics.

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.

Displaying a candid photo of Ramirez, Schuylkill County District Attorney Robert Franz told jurors Friday, "He was assaulted and he was beaten, and he was killed for walking the streets of Shenandoah. He didn't deserve that."

Piekarsky was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he'd already been knocked unconscious by another teen. But Fanelli insisted that one of the prosecution's key witnesses, 18-year-old Brian Scully, was the kicker.

"He's the guy who delivered the kick, and to avoid prison he needs to lay that kick on someone else," Fanelli said in his closing argument.

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.

Words led to brawl
Scully 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, 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?" Fanelli told 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.

He also said prosecutors offered leniency to key witnesses — including Scully and Walsh, who admitted to knocking Ramirez unconscious with a single 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."

Franz, the prosecutor, denied any misconduct on the part of the district attorney's office.

"This case is not about the government out for a pound of flesh," he said. Instead, he said, it could be boiled down to a single sentence: "Never kick a man when he's down."

Franz urged the jury: "Remember Luis Ramirez."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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