The beating death of Mexican immigrant Luis Eduardo Ramírez Zavala is an issue far from being over, despite a Pennsylvania state court acquitted them in early May the two teens charged in what has been catalogued as a hate crime.
Just this weekend Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding the Department of Justice to file federal charges against Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky, the two teenagers who faced trial for the murder.
"This senseless and cowardly attack appears to have been a hate crime as racial slurs were hurled against Mr. Ramirez throughout the fatal assault," Rendell wrote in his letter. "I strongly recommend that your office bring civil rights charges against Piekarsky and Donchak. I believe that justice and fairness mandate such a prosecution."
After eyewitnesses' testimony linked both Piekarsky and Donchak to the fatal event of 12 July 2008, an all-white jury found them guilty only of simple assault and alcohol-related offenses, a verdict that irritated Latino rights organizations.
"Luis Ramírez was murdered. And yet no one is being held responsible for the loss of his life," said Gladys Limón a few minutes after an all-white jury acquitted the two teens charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and killing of this Mexican immigrant.
Ms. Limón, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, represented Ramirez's partner Crystal Dillman, with whom the deceased had two children.
"The justice system has failed to vindicate the death of Luis Ramírez, has failed to vindicate the communities and national interests. It's a complete outrage," Ms. Limón said.
And though the two teens were acquitted from the state charges pending against them, national and local organizations are putting pressure on the federal government to further its investigations into the death of Luis Eduardo Ramírez Zavala, a sign that this issue is far from being over.
"We're engaged in consultation with other agencies to see if we would take any actions and what those actions would be. Yet it's premature to say what's going to happen," said Barry Morrison, director of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia.
MALDEF has already launched an online petition collecting signatures to make the Department of Justice classify Ramírez Zavala's death as a hate crime, which the Department of Justice defines as "offenses reported as a result of bias toward a particular race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or physical or mental disability."
There were 9,535 hate crime victims in the United States in 2007, a slight decrease from the 9,652 registered in 2006, according to Federal Bureau of Investigations' most recent figures.
FBI's numbers show also there were 1,347 victims attacked because of their ethnicity or national origin bias, with Hispanics being 61.6% of the victimized. And though the most common offense is intimidation—2,565 in 2007—, there were at least nine "murders and nonnegligent manslaughters", as the agency defines it.
12 July 2008
Ramírez was beaten to death by four white teenagers, all football players for their local high school, the night of 12 July 2008 in Shenandoah, a town in Pennsylvania's coal country some 80 miles north of Philadelphia. He died two days later due to his injuries at Geisinger Medical Center, in Danville, Pa.
He had been waiting for his girlfriend—and Crystal Dillman's sister—Roxanne Rector, 15, who had just gone to her mother's house to ask permission to sleep over at a friends house. When the group of kids met with the girl, one of them, Brian Scully, yelled "isn't it a little bit late for you to be out?"
That's where it all ensued. Ramírez yelled back at them in Spanish and after a brief exchange where Scully called him "Spic" and told him "to go back to Mexico", the pack, lead by Brandon Piekarski, charged.
Ramirez was beaten, kicked and stomped on. The authopsy showed Luis Ramirez's skull had a double fracture: one in the back of the head another on the left side. This latter injury was so serious that his brain oozed out and swelled up causing his basic functions to stop. He was dead.
Piekarski, 17, and Derrick Donchak, 19, were tried together last week at a Schuylkill County court for their role in what authorities labeled as a hate crime, what brought to light the racial tension Latinos and immigrants from Latinamerica experience in their diaspora through rural America, a destination immigrants much prefer nowadays.
Piekarski, charged with third-degree murder, was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez' head while he lied unconscious on the ground; he also faced aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, simple assault, ethnic intimidation, criminal solicitation/hindering apprehension or prosecution and purchase, consumption, possession or transportation of liquor.
“Brandon Piekarsky snapped. He rushed at Luis Ramírez, kicked him," Assistant District Attorney Robert Frantz said in his opening statement. "When Brandon Piekarsky is done, Derrick Donchak rushes at him.”
Donchak was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, criminal solicitation/hindering apprehension or prosecution, ethnic intimidation, corruption of minors, purchase or consumption of alcohol by a minor and selling or furnishing alcohol to minors.
Colin Walsh, another teenager involved, punched Ramirez in the chin and knocked him down, causing his head to smash against the pavement.
"I saw Colin [Walsh] punch Mr. Ramirez in the face. Brandon Piekarsky kicked him in the head,” Benjamin Joseph Lawson, a friend of the defendants, testified.
Walsh pleaded guilty in a federal court to violating Ramírez's Fair Housing Rights, admitting that his actions prevented other Latinos from moving into the area and getting all state charges against him dropped. The deal would send him to spend between 4 to 9 years in a federal prison. Yet, it is still unclear what else this deal involves after a judge ordered all documents to be sealed.
Walsh testified in court that he saw Piekarski kick Ramírez in the head.
"He took one step and kicked him in the head. I was shocked,” Walsh said. "It wasn’t really right what he did, kick a man when he was down.”
A fourth teen, Brian Scully, who faces aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation charges in juvenile court, also testified that Piekarski had kicked Ramírez in the head.
The boys had two meetings, one at Donchak's garage shortly after the fight and another the following day at Pierkarski's house, where they put together a story to tell authorities, following Piekarski's mother's advice.
Frederick Fanelli and Jeffrey Markoski, attorneys for Piekarski and Donchack, respectively, presented an enraged Ramírez who wouldn't stop fighting. The kids, they argued, acted on self defense, a four-against-one self defense.
The prosecution also presented a photo of Derrick Donchak wearing a t-shirt with a United States Border Patrol logo on his chest at a Halloween party, meaning that he had already been charged and was awaiting trial when he wore it.
"You don't mock. You don't show up like that, not unless the intent is real," Frantz said.
But defense attorney Markosky discounted the photograph as evidence.
"A T-shirt is not an expression of what your inner beliefs are," he said. "T-shirts are not evidence."
While the prosecutors used three days to present and rest their case, it took defense attorneys only two hours to present and rest theirs. Donchak and Piekarski were not called to the stand.
By Thursday everybody was waiting for a verdict.
The all-white jury found Donchak and Piekarski not guilty of the most serious charges: criminal homicide, aggravated and ethnic intimidation.
The jury deliberated for almost 8 hours on Friday.
Shrotly before midnight they came out to a court room where mainly family and friends of the defendants were present. As the verdict was read, Donchak and Piekarski celebrated; their close ones jumped and shrieked in emotion. Donchak jumped off his chair and hugged Piekarski. Some members of the crowd were prevented from jumping the rope.
"Hey! This ain't over yet," the voice of a sheriff rushed as he approached them.
But it was over. The families enjoined in a series of embraces where tears and emotion won over the somber image of Gladys Limón darting out the room while some reporters went straight to her.
She disappeared behind a door for approximately 15 minutes. Joining her was a representative of the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia who declined giving out comments as he walked out escorting Limón, who took questions stoically.
"I had to call Crystal Dillman and Luis' mother to let them know that the people who murdered their son and partner were going to continue their lives uninterrpted", she said. "They were shocked obviously. They're devastated."
But the two teens, their family and friends were not devastated. They left the court house cheering and applauding the jury's decision, which, according to one of the jurors, was pretty much agreed upon hours before it was finally made public.
"From 5 p.m. it was pretty much an 11 to 1. I was the one holding up and the rest had to convince," juror Eric Macklin said. "I believe all four boys are racist and I was pretty close to find them [Piekarski and Donchak] guilty, but due to the evidence presented I just couldn't do it."
Piekarski's attorney, declined giving out comments, while Markosky said the jury "saw the case as they should have... it's a great day for the Donchak family."
It is not over
The trial's outcome outraged Latino leaders, who since the beginning claimed there were serious mistakes being done in the prosecution of this crime.
"I'm completely disgusted and amazed at the jury's improper, imprudent and deviant attitude towards this case. These individuals, all of them white, didn't understand they had in their hands a civic and socially important case dealing with the life of a human being," said Reverend Miguel Rivera.
Rivera, president of the National Coalition Of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC, in Spanish), said the trial should have been held somewhere else.
"The prosecution was totally inept, lacking professionalism, as the outcome of this trial showed us," he said. "They should've presented a motion to hold the trial somewhere else because the nature of this corrupt county [Schuylkill County] aids to breed white supremacy sentiments there."
The lack of justice, Rivera said, shows that even an animal has more rights than an immigrant.
"Had they killed a dog, these kids would be already emprioned. It's amazing that a dog has more rights than an undocummented immigrants," he said.
Agapito López, an activist from Hazleton, Pa., who has been very vocal in the quest for justice in this case, said the verdict sent an erroneous message and that now there Latinos in Shenandoah live with fear.
"Latinos don't dare to go out [in Shenandoah]. It is now understood that you can commit a crime and go unpunished if you have the connections, the money, and you are white," he said.
Rivera and López are asking now the federal government to push forward and present charges agaisnt Donchak and Piekarski, a step that might already be on the works, according to Morrison of the Anti Defamation League in Philadelphia.
"I wouldn't be hopeful that something is going to hapen soon, but we've been approach by the Department of Justice to work closely in this case," he said.
He declined to give specifics as to what kind of assistance ADL is providing the federal goverment with.
"I just would say this is not over yet. There are still more things to happen," he said.