Two white teenagers went on trial Monday in the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant in eastern Pennsylvania. Prosecutors said the defendants attacked the man because of his race, while the defense cast the victim as a man with a short fuse who continued the fight even after the teens tried to walk away.
Brandon Piekarsky, 17, and Derrick Donchak, 19, were charged in the July death of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old farmhand and factory worker from Iramuco, Mexico, who entered the country illegally seven years ago.
Piekarsky was charged with third-degree murder, while Donchak faces an aggravated assault rap. The two friends, who are being tried together, have also been charged with ethnic intimidation.
The first day of testimony included the revelation that Ramirez was carrying on a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl. The girl's interaction with the teens started the argument that led to the fight in Shenandoah, a small town about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Was beating a hate crime?
Prosecutors called the beating a hate crime. The two high school football players were out drinking with friends and shouted ethnic slurs as they punched and kicked Ramirez on a street, Assistant District Attorney Robert Franz told the all-white jury in his opening statement.
"They told him to go back to Mexico. They told him, 'This is Shenandoah. You don't belong here,'" he said.
After Ramirez was knocked unconscious, "Brandon Piekarsky plants his foot and violently kicks Mr. Ramirez in the head," Franz said. "It's described as if someone was kicking a football."
Ramirez died 30 hours later.
The defendants' attorneys said Ramirez became enraged by a comment made by a third teenager, Brian Scully, who has been charged in the case as a juvenile. They denied Piekarsky and Donchak uttered any slurs, and said it was a fourth teen, Colin Walsh, who landed the fatal blow.
Both sides agree Ramirez fell and hit his head on the macadam after Walsh punched him.
Walsh pleaded guilty in federal court earlier this month and is expected to testify against Piekarsky and Donchak. Documents in Walsh's case have been sealed, but Piekarsky's attorney, Frederick Fanelli, told jurors Monday that he pleaded guilty to violating Ramirez's civil rights — and in return, state murder charges were dropped.
'This isn't about race'
Fanelli denied Piekarsky kicked Ramirez, and he lambasted prosecutors for pursuing ethnic intimidation charges.
"This isn't about race," he said.
Among the witnesses Monday was a 15-year-old girl who told jurors that she began dating Ramirez when she was barely 14. She said she had a sexual relationship with him, and that he had proposed marriage to her a few days before the altercation.
Schuylkill County President Judge William Baldwin said in court that he allowed the girl to testify on a limited basis about her relationship with Ramirez so jurors could assess "the extent to which she may be biased in her testimony." He appeared to be concerned about the effect of the revelation on the jurors, reminding them, "This is not a trial about whether Mr. Ramirez was a good guy or bad guy."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys laid out different scenarios for jurors.
The fight began late on July 12 when the teens, all Shenandoah residents who played football at Shenandoah Valley High School, were walking home from a block party and spotted the teenage girl alone in a darkened park.
"Isn't it a little late for you to be out?" Scully asked the teen, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys.
At that point, Fanelli said, Ramirez emerged from the shadows "and goes nuts." Ramirez "was not going to let these white teenage boys talk that way to his girlfriend" and told them, "I run this park. I own this block," Fanelli said.
The girl is the half-sister of Crystal Dillman, 25, who has two children with Ramirez and who has called herself Ramirez's fiancee.
Fanelli said Ramirez started the fight by punching Walsh, who wrestled him to the ground. Donchak tried to break it up and wound up on top of Ramirez, but let him up and yelled, "It's over!"
Kicked while down
Ramirez and the teens went their separate ways. But then two of Ramirez's friends arrived, and he ran off after the teens and sucker-punched Scully in the head, Fanelli said.
"He picks Scully because Scully's the guy who's been jawing at him the whole time," Fanelli said.
That's when Walsh punched Ramirez in the chin, knocking him out, defense attorneys and prosecutors said. "That's what he needed to do to get him off his friend," Fanelli said. "I don't blame Colin Walsh one bit."
Fanelli also said bystanders identified Scully as the teen who kicked Ramirez when he was down.
Later, a friend of Ramirez's showed up with a gun and pointed it at the teens, prompting Donchak to call 911, Fanelli said. A state trooper testified Monday that a gun was found at the scene.