Men found guilty of hate crime in death of Latino immigrant

WASHINGTON — A federal jury found two young Pennsylvania men guilty of a hate crime on Thursday in the 2008 beating death of a Mexican immigrant. The verdict was welcomed by Hispanic organizations, which saw the trial as a national test case for the treatment of Latinos.

The men, Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky, were found guilty of violating the civil rights of Luis Ramirez, an illegal immigrant, when they and a group of football players beat him in Shenandoah, Pa., in July 2008. He died shortly after from head injuries.

Donchak, 20, sobbed as the verdict was read in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in Scranton, and Piekarsky, 18, put his head in his hands, according to The Associated Press. The men face sentences of up to life in prison. Donchak faces up to 20 years more on an obstruction of justice charge and five years on a conspiracy charge. They are to be sentenced Jan. 24.

The men were acquitted of the most serious charges in a state trial last year, a verdict that angered Hispanic advocacy groups and drew criticism from Gov. Edward G. Rendell. The Justice Department later indicted the men on the hate crime charges on the grounds that they beat Ramirez because he was Latino and they did not want Latinos living in their town.

Prosecutors said Donchak and Piekarsky, both teenagers at the time of the crime, hurled ethnic slurs at Ramirez and told him: “This is America. Go back to Mexico.”

The two men were tried under the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to use someone’s race or national origin to prevent him from living where he chooses.

Donchak’s lawyer, William Fetterhoff, said that the trial amounted to a case of double jeopardy — being tried twice for the same crime — and that the two were indicted only because the government was dissatisfied with the state verdict.

He said that the encounter was a result of young male aggression soaked with alcohol. “Once a fight among teens begins, then the sky is the limit for name calling, insults and foul language,” Fetterhoff said Thursday by telephone from Scranton. “It didn’t matter that Mr. Ramirez was white, black, Hispanic or shiny green.”

The case had become a cause celebre for Hispanic groups.

“The verdict sends an important message that hate crimes are not to be tolerated,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization. “In this case, justice has been made.”

A lawyer for Piekarsky, James Swetz, said by telephone that the two men would appeal. He said the Fair Housing Act required not only a finding of racial or ethnic bias, but also that it relate directly to preventing the victim from living where he chooses. It was intended to prevent threatening situations like the placing of burning crosses on black people’s lawns in the past.

“It’s an attempt to put a square peg in a round hole,” Swetz said. “There is no evidence that these kids knew that Ramirez lived in the borough.”

Prosecutors disagreed, and managed to persuade the jury.

The case raised difficult questions that are rooted in the immigration debate that has swept the country in recent years.