updated 10/3/2010 3:42:04 PM ET 2010-10-03T19:42:04

One night two summers ago, an illegal immigrant from Mexico brawled with a gang of white teens from Shenandoah, an old mining town in the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania.

The fight's outcome is not in dispute: 25-year-old Luis Ramirez wound up dead. The question for a jury is did two former high school football stars commit a federal hate crime.

Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak are charged in connection with the attack — a case brought by the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division after an all-white jury acquitted the defendants of state charges last year.

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Jury selection begins Monday at the courthouse in Scranton.

A guilty verdict in the high-profile trial could send Piekarsky, now 18, and Donchak, now 20, to prison for life, as well as soothe the anger felt by Ramirez's supporters after the May 2009 verdict in Schuylkill County Court. Piekarsky was cleared of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation; Donchak beat aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation charges. Both were convicted of simple assault.

A separate indictment charges Shenandoah's former police chief and two officers with sabotaging the investigation into Ramirez's death by altering evidence and lying to the FBI. They are scheduled to go on trial early next year.

Gladys Limon, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the trial this week represents a new chance to hold the perpetrators accountable.

"More than two years after this brutal beating, the family and the public will for the first time have the opportunity for justice," said Limon, who has followed the case closely and accompanied the American mother of Ramirez's children to the first trial. "We know the state prosecution resulted in a complete miscarriage of justice."

Prosecutors are expected to portray Ramirez as the victim of drunken thugs motivated by their dislike of the town's growing Hispanic population. They say Piekarsky and Donchak shouted obscenity-laced ethnic slurs at Ramirez during the brawl, telling him to "Go back to Mexico" and "Tell your (expletive) Mexican friends to get the (expletive) out of Shenandoah."

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The defendants claim that Ramirez's ethnicity had nothing to do with the melee, that he was the aggressor, and that the federal prosecution is politically motivated.

Both defendants are charged under criminal provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

The government's theory — that Piekarsky and Donchak attacked Ramirez because of his ethnicity, and wanted him and other Latinos to leave Shenandoah — is "just completely not only false, but ridiculous," said William Fetterhoff, Donchak's lawyer. "These kids, none of them, had any intention to target a person of Mexican background that night."

Fetterhoff said the fact that ethnic slurs were hurled at Ramirez during the melee proves only that "when a fight begins among teenage boys, the sky is the limit for name-calling and crass language."

The confrontation began late on July 12, 2008, when a half-dozen teens were headed home from a block party in Shenandoah and began arguing with Ramirez, who was with his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park. The verbal altercation escalated into a brawl, with punches thrown on both sides.

Piekarsky was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he'd already been knocked unconscious by another teen, Colin Walsh, who pleaded guilty in federal court last year to violating Ramirez's civil rights and testified against his one-time friends at the state trial.

Donchak also took part in the fight and then conspired with Shenandoah police to cover up the crime, federal prosecutors said.

Ramirez's death exposed simmering ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia that attracted Hispanics drawn by jobs in factories and farm fields.

Some Latinos say they continue to feel unwelcome in the town.

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"We talk about this in the restaurant every weekend," said Fermin Bermejo, who runs a restaurant called Boricua House that draws a mix of whites and Hispanics.

"Most of the people in the town are great, wonderful people. The problem starts with anybody who has some kind of power: law enforcement, borough council, our mayor, our school board," said Bermejo, a Puerto Rican born in the United States. "There's a pattern, not only for myself but for many Latino people who come in here and say, 'I don't think it's fair. I don't like what's happening.' It's been like that a long time. But I believe it's going to continue to change for the better."

Court documents filed in advance of the hate-crimes trial provide a glimpse into the hot-button issues surrounding the case.

The defense objects to several questions that prosecutors want to ask potential jurors, claiming the government is trying to keep white conservatives off the panel.

"The Government has attempted to politicize this case from the beginning, and its proposed (jury) questionnaire is but a further attempt to do so," defense lawyers wrote. "The premise for the Government's questions on political philosophy is obvious. The Government deems white, rural conservatives as likely bigots unable to apply the law and follow the Court's instructions in this case."

The government, for its part, has asked U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo to forbid the defense from telling jurors that Piekarsky and Donchak have already been tried and acquitted in state court, fearing an attempt to encourage "jury nullification" or confuse jurors about double jeopardy, which doesn't apply in this case.

Prosecutors also don't want defense attorneys to call them "Washington, D.C.," or "out-of-town" lawyers or suggest the charges are politically motivated.

And they have asked Caputo to forbid the defense from raising questions about Ramirez's character, including his immigration status, his romantic relationship with an underage girl, and allegations that he sold illegal drugs and used an alias.

Both defendants are free pending the outcome of the trial. Donchak won the court's permission to accompany his family on at least three camping trips this summer, while Piekarsky spent a week in Ocean City, Md., with friends.

Piekarsky's lawyer, James Swetz, said his client is anxious to get started.

"He's looking to put this behind him so he can get on with his life," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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