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Pa. men get 9 years for 2008 slaying of Mexican immigrant

Two men convicted of a federal hate crime for beating and kicking a Mexican immigrant who died were each sentenced to nine years in prison.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two Pennsylvania men who were convicted of a federal hate crime for beating and kicking an illegal Mexican immigrant who died of his injuries were sentenced Wednesday to nine years in prison.

Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky were among a group of white high school football players in the small town of Shenandoah who attacked 25-year-old Luis Ramirez in 2008. Prosecutors alleged they beat and kicked Ramirez because they didn't like Hispanics and wanted them out of their town.

Justice Department prosecutor Myesha Braden said in court Wednesday that while Piekarsky, now 19, and Donchak, now 21, did not intend to kill Ramirez, they decided his ethnicity made him "somehow worthy of being beaten like a dog in the streets."

Defense attorneys said they will appeal the verdicts and sentences.

The pair were convicted in October. They could have received more than 12 years to more than 15 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo granted them a reduction because of their personal character and conduct before Ramirez's beating, as well as the numerous letters and testimonials he received.

He also noted Ramirez's death and the crimes of Piekarsky and Donchak.

"The jury found that Mr. Ramirez died as a result of his ethnicity or race. This is serious business in America," said Caputo, adding: "There are no winners here, only losers."

Piekarsky, in a statement to the court, expressed remorse for what happened and offered his condolences to Ramirez's family but said "it was not racial. I am not a racist."

Donchak chose not to make a statement to the court.

Witnesses at their trial gave conflicting accounts of the late-night brawl that pitted Ramirez — a short, stout man nicknamed "Caballo," Spanish for horse — against 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 crimes, including third-degree murder in Piekarsky's case. 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.

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. A fourth teen, Brian Scully, pleaded guilty in juvenile court and also testified for the prosecution.

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 three Shenandoah police officers to cover up the crime. Those officers were tried last month in federal court on charges they obstructed a federal investigation into the fatal beating, but a jury rejected most of the government's case.

In court Wednesday, Braden said that Ramirez's death victimized "every member of the Hispanic community in Shenandoah and around the country." She urged Caputo to send a signal that U.S. courts take hate crimes seriously.

Braden also compared what happened to Ramirez to the violence committed against southern blacks in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, drawing groans and grimaces from the defendants' family members and supporters.

Defense attorney William Fetterhoff acknowledged testimony that Donchak often used ethnic slurs to refer to Hispanics. But he said Donchak also had black and Hispanic friends and recounted an episode in which Donchak, a volunteer firefighter, helped to rescue a Hispanic family from a burning building.

"The worst caricature of all was that he was driven by racial hatred. That is a lie," he told the court.

Angel Jirau, a community activist and former member of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, called nine years a significant sentence.

"I hope they are able to come out of this ... and teach other people no one has the right to take anyone's life because they look differently, they talk differently," said Jirau, who attended the sentencing hearing.