Latinos in Pennsylvania Fearful After Teenagers Are Cleared of Serious Charges in Immigrant Death

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

There is fear among Latinos in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

“The message the justice system sent to young white men here is that they can continue to beat up and kill Latinos, because in the end, a year in jail is all they will have to pay,” Jon Zamudio, a 26-year-old local resident, told New York newspaper El Diario/La Prensa.

Zamudio was referring to the verdict last week that cleared two local teenagers of the most serious charges in relation to the fatal beating of an undocumented Mexican immigrant last summer.

An all-white jury acquitted Brandon Piekarsky, 17, of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, and Derrick Donchak, 19, of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation, The Associated Press reported. Both were convicted of simple assault, a second-degree misdemeanor. They could be sentenced to one to two years in prison.

The victim was Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old man originally from the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He worked at a factory and in the fields, picking strawberries and cherries. He lived with his American fiancee Crystal Dillman and had two children.

This is how The A.P. described the scene inside the courtroom the day the verdict was announced:

Prosecutors called the beating death of an illegal immigrant from Mexico a hate crime, and they urged an all-white jury in Pennsylvania coal country to punish two white teenagers for their roles in the attack.

But the jury found the teenagers not guilty of all serious charges, eliciting cheers and claps from the defendants’ families and friends — and cries of outrage from the victim’s.

Local newspaper The Standard Speaker reported that, “(l)ater, several cars were seen driving through Shenandoah blowing their horns but there were no other disturbances reported in the borough, nor were any disturbances reported around the courthouse.”

Jury Foreman Eric Macklin told the newspaper that he and the other jurors thought “it’s horrible what happened to Luis Ramirez.”

“I personally was very close to finding them both guilty on every serious count but I was not sure beyond a reasonable doubt,” he added. “I despise racism in every form.”

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which assigned a staff attorney to work on the case, issued a statement severely criticizing the Shenandoah verdict. MALDEF’s interim president Henry Solano said,

Tonight there is no justice in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The jury’s conclusion is an outrage. Luis Ramirez was brutally murdered. Witnesses testified that it was racially motivated as a result of hate and intolerance.

In the week when Congress passed the Hate Crimes Act, this verdict underscores the importance of the passage of this Act. It is time for the Department of Justice to step in and bring justice to the Ramirez family and send a strong message that violence targeting immigrants will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

MALDEF urged the Senate to pass the bill approved last week in the House that “strengthens existing federal hate crime laws by authorizing the Department of Justice to assist local authorities in investigating and prosecuting certain bias-motivated crimes.”

In an editorial, El Diario/La Prensa criticized the verdict.

“A gang of white teenagers yelled racial slurs at Ramirez, who was left convulsing in the street and foaming from the mouth. He died of head trauma two days later,” it said. “Despite this, defense lawyers for the accused portrayed Ramirez, not the drunk, out-of-control, anti-immigrant gang, as the aggressor.”

Shenandoah’s immigrant residents are now scared at what the outcome of the trial may mean for them.

“We Latinos do not like going out much during the week, we want to avoid trouble, especially with white youngsters who yell stuff at us,” Clara Vargas, a young Mexican mother of two, told El Diario. “On Saturdays, we do laundry and shopping, and on Sunday we go to Mass.”

“I didn’t expect anything else,” said Melquíades González, another resident. “Because, if the victim had been white and the aggressor, Hispanic, they would already have him serving a life sentence.”

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.