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Teens sentenced in fatal beating of immigrant

Two teenagers convicted of simple assault in the beating death of an illegal Mexican immigrant that sparked outrage from Hispanic leaders and civil-rights groups were each sentenced Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two teenagers convicted of simple assault in the beating death of an illegal Mexican immigrant that sparked outrage from Hispanic leaders and civil-rights groups were each sentenced Wednesday to at least six months behind bars.

Schuylkill County Judge William Baldwin said the sentences for Brandon Piekarsky, 17, and Derrick Donchak, 19, exceeded the usual sentencing guidelines but that they reflected the "absolute brutality and viciousness" of the attack on Luis Ramirez in the tiny town of Shenandoah on July 12.

Baldwin said he could not consider the racial overtones of the case and the fact Ramirez died from the beating, despite a rare letter from Gov. Ed Rendell that the judge said urged him to do so. Both teens were acquitted by an all-white jury of ethnic intimidation, and Piekarsky was acquitted of third-degree murder in the trial that ended last month.

The judge said Ramirez's ethnicity mattered less to the high-school football players who beat him up than the fact he was an outsider. One witness heard the thuds of shoes kicking Ramirez from a block away, he said.

"This wasn't any fight. This was a gang of young athletes ganged up on one person," Baldwin said before about 100 people at the hearing.

'Beat the pulp out of him'
"You picked out a guy who was not one of you and just beat the pulp out of him," the judge said.

Piekarsky, who slumped over the defense table after hearing his sentence, and Donchak were directed to report to Schuylkill County Prison in mid-July. Neither spoke at the sentencing.

More than a half-dozen teachers, coaches, friends and relatives testified as character witnesses for the defendants, whose sentences also included penalties for some alcohol-related offenses, and uniformly described them as good people with promising futures.

Crystal Dillman, 25, of Shenandoah, the mother of Ramirez's two children, ages 1 and 2, sobbed as she read a statement to the court.

"At least you have your lives," she told the defendants. "He doesn't because of where he came from."

A representative from the district attorney's office read a letter from Ramirez's mother in Mexico, who said his death took away "the best thing that I had in my life."

At the trial, prosecutors said Ramirez was the victim of a gang of drunken white teens who disliked the influx of Hispanic immigrants in their town. Defense lawyers said the 25-year-old Ramirez was the aggressor.

The fight began late at night when a half-dozen teens, all Shenandoah residents who played football at Shenandoah Valley High School, were walking home from a party and came across Ramirez and a 15-year-old girl in a park. During the trial, the girl testified that she and Ramirez were carrying on a sexual relationship. Dillman, who has called herself Ramirez's fiancee, is the girl's half-sister.

Ramirez became enraged when one of the teens asked the girl why she was out so late. At least one teen admitted shouting ethnic slurs. Lawyers disputed who threw the first punch.

'Senseless and cowardly'
Hispanic leaders and civil-rights groups, along with Rendell, have pressed the Justice Department to pursue civil-rights charges against the teens. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Rendell called the attack "senseless and cowardly."

In reaching the verdicts, the jury had to sort through four days of often conflicting testimony about the epithet-filled brawl between popular local football players and a Hispanic man who appeared willing to fight.

Piekarsky, 17, who prosecutors said kicked Ramirez's head after another teen had knocked him unconscious, was acquitted of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation.

Donchak, 19, accused of pummeling Ramirez while holding a small piece of metal to give his fist more force, was acquitted of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.

Two other teenagers have pleaded guilty in connection with the attack.

The case heightened ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a coal town of 5,000 where Hispanic residents have been drawn by cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Ramirez had moved there seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico, working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries.