A former municipal police chief accused of hindering an FBI investigation into the beating death of an illegal Mexican immigrant was sentenced Wednesday to 13 months in prison after a federal judge rejected calls for more time as "overly harsh."
The sentence given to former Shenandoah police Chief Matthew Nestor was well below the 57 to 71 months recommended by federal probation officials.
Nestor and two subordinates were accused of helping a group of white high school football players conceal their roles in the July 2008 attack on 25-year-old Luis Ramirez in the small, ethnically charged town in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Nestor was cleared of all but one charge by a jury that appeared to reject the government's theory that Nestor plotted with two subordinates, William Moyer and Jason Hayes, to shield the teenage assailants from being held responsible for the assault.
Jurors convicted Nestor of falsifying his police report. In the report, Nestor failed to record the names of the suspects and omitted the fact that he had numerous phone conversations with one of the defendant's mothers in the hours after Ramirez was attacked, prosecutors said.
Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo said Wednesday that Nestor's report "may well have had the potential to impede the federal investigation of a hate crime involving a homicide," but he called sentencing guidelines "overly harsh" and inappropriate given the crime.
"He was unable to separate himself as a human being from the fabric of his community and the friendships he had," Caputo said of Nestor.
Ramirez was knocked unconscious and then kicked in the head as he fought with four drunken teenagers walking home from a block party late on July 12, 2008. Ramirez, a native of the small central Mexican town of Iramuco, died in a hospital of his injuries.
Two of Ramirez's assailants, Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky, were convicted of a federal hate crime and are serving nine-year prison sentences.
Nestor maintained his innocence while addressing the court Wednesday. He said he set out to "write a concise, informative police report with what I did, what I saw, what I heard."
He denied trying to craft it in a way that would help the teens, and said he would write it the same way again.
"I respect the jury's verdict. I don't understand it, but I respect it," Nestor said. He is appealing his conviction.
Before Nestor was sentenced, federal prosecutor Myesha Braden said the chief "abused his position of trust."
"As chief of police, he had an obligation to see that justice was done, to see that the truth came out. ... He undermined that system of justice by filing these false police reports," Braden said.
Moyer was convicted of lying to the FBI. Prosecutors said Moyer lied about what a 911 caller had told him on the night of the fight. He was sentenced Wednesday to three months in prison. His attorneys had requested probation while prosecutors sought a year in prison.
"I still walk around Shenandoah with my head held high," Moyer told the judge. Like Nestor, he is appealing his conviction.
Both former officers were ordered to report to prison on June 29.
The government continued to insist both men obstructed justice.
"Americans rely on their law enforcement officials to protect public safety and serve justice, but these officers chose to obstruct the very investigation they were charged with conducting," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement.
"The Department of Justice will take action against anyone who interferes with the enforcement of our hate crimes laws, especially when those interfering with such enforcement are also violating their oaths to uphold the law," he said.
Hayes, who was in the courtroom Wednesday, was cleared of all charges.
Nestor and a fourth officer were charged in an extortion scheme in a separate case, but those counts were dismissed by Caputo at trial last month. A jury acquitted both men of civil rights and obstruction counts.