Closing arguments wrap up in Pa. hate crime case

AP News
Posted: Oct 13, 2010 6:55 PM
Closing arguments wrap up in Pa. hate crime case

Two young men were filled with alcohol and testosterone _ and, as prosecutors charge, ethnic hatred _ when they took part in the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant two years ago.

Now it's up to a jury to decide whether they are guilty of a federal hate crime.

Jury deliberations will begin Thursday in the trial of former high school football players Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak, charged in the July 2008 death of a 25-year-old illegal immigrant in the small town of Shenandoah.

In her summation to the all-white jury, Justice Department prosecutor Myesha Braden said Wednesday that Donchak, now 20, and Piekarsky, now 18, were motivated by their dislike of Shenandoah's growing Hispanic population when they beat and kicked Luis Ramirez during a random late-night encounter in a park.

Afterward, she said, the young men joked about what they had done and plotted to lie to the police.

"They showed no remorse that night ... no sense of responsibility for having beaten a man to the point of death," Braden said.

The defendants, along with two of their friends who have already pleaded guilty, "acted as a team," she said. "As a team they issued racial threats and slurs. They told him as a team to go back to Mexico. And they beat him as a team. The defendants are responsible together for what happened to Luis Ramirez."

Donchak and Piekarsky were charged in federal court with violating Ramirez's civil rights after an all-white jury in Schuylkill County cleared them of serious state charges last year.

Prosecutors allege that Piekarsky delivered 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 former friends last week.

Donchak took part in the fight and then conspired with Shenandoah police to cover up the crime, federal prosecutors say. The accused officers are scheduled to go on trial early next year.

Both defendants are charged under criminal provisions of the Fair Housing Act, while Donchak faces additional counts related to the cover-up. The hate crime charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

As they have all along, defense attorneys insisted Wednesday that the fight stemmed from youthful aggression _ not ethnic hatred.

"Brandon Piekarsky is not, nor has he ever been, a racist," said James Swetz, Piekarsky's attorney.

He ridiculed the government's theory that Donchak and Piekarsky intended to deprive Ramirez of his federally protected housing rights, saying they didn't even know that Ramirez lived in Shenandoah.

The fight began late in the evening of July 12, 2008, when a half-dozen drunken teens, all football players at Shenandoah Valley High School, were walking home from a block party and came across Ramirez and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park. A verbal altercation escalated into a wild melee, with punches thrown on both sides.

The young people who brawled that night were "too filled with street pride, easily inclined toward crass language, too quick to anger," said Donchak's attorney, William Fetterhoff. They lacked "maturity, judgment, prudence and self-restraint _ Luis Ramirez included."

Fetterhoff said Ramirez bore some responsibility for what happened to him. The initial fight was over when Ramirez _ enraged by ethnic slurs that one of the teens, Brian Scully, continued hurling at him from down the street _ charged and began clubbing Scully in the back of the head.

That brought Walsh's knockout punch, following by the kick to the head. The defense claims Scully, not Piekarsky, kicked Ramirez as he lay unconscious in the street.

Ramirez, said Fetterhoff, "didn't deserve to die. But he would be alive today if he had left."

Calling his client "Beer Muscles Piekarsky," Swetz said the teen was spoiling for a fight that night, regardless of ethnicity.

He repeatedly reminded jurors that Piekarsky was only 16 at the time of the assault, an age, he said, when boys are more concerned about driving privileges and girls than housing rights.

Justice Department prosecutor Gerard Hogan, delivering a rebuttal, reminded jurors that youth may not be used as a defense.

He argued that Piekarsky and Donchak formed an intent to hurt Ramirez the moment they saw him.

"What did they know about him? They knew he was a Mexican. They knew he was a 'spic,'" said Hogan, his voice rising. "They knew he didn't belong in their town."