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2 convicted in Pa. hate-crime beating death

A jury convicted two Pennsylvania men Thursday of a federal hate crime in the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant, finding they attacked the man primarily out of hatred for Hispanics.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A jury convicted two Pennsylvania men Thursday of a federal hate crime in the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant, finding they attacked the man primarily out of hatred for Hispanics.

An all-white jury in Scranton convicted Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky of violating the civil rights of 25-year-old Luis Ramirez, who died in July 2008 following a confrontation with a group of white high school football players in the former mining town of Shenandoah. The jury also convicted Donchak of two other counts related to a plot to cover up the beating.

Donchak, 20, sobbed as the verdict was read. Piekarsky, 18, put his head in his hands. Both were led away in handcuffs and ordered held behind bars pending their Jan. 24 sentencing. They could be sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors alleged that Donchak and Piekarsky beat and kicked Ramirez because they didn't like Hispanics and wanted them out of their town.

'No remorse that night'
"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.

Defense attorneys William Fetterhoff and James Swetz called the verdict disappointing and pledged an appeal. Prosecutors declined to comment.

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 another all-white jury acquitted them of serious state charges. Hispanic activists decried the May 2009 verdict, 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.

Fetterhoff complained Thursday about the second prosecution.

'Surprising verdict'
"It is a surprising verdict, in view of the first verdict in Schuylkill County Court," said Fetterhoff, Donchak's attorney. "This is exactly the problem when defendants are subject to being tried twice on the same facts."

Piekarsky was accused of delivering 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 were convicted of a hate crime under the Fair Housing Act. Donchak also was convicted of two 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," Fetterhoff said, 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."