Pennsylvania Burning: Feds Levy Charges In Immigrant Killing and Police Cover-Up

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Charges Announced
The United States Department of Justice announced a sweeping set of indictments levied
by a federal grand jury connected to a racially motivated killing and alleged police corruption in Shenandoah, PA. The indictments handed down December 10 were released today. Among those charged are two former high school football players and various police officers, including Shenandoah's police chief. Shenandoah is a small town approximately 60 road miles from Allentown in the eastern coal-mining region of the state. The area, previously nearly all white, has seen an increase in Latino immigration over the last decade. The case was featured in a CNN documentary , Latino in America, which aired earlier this year. Latinos, who often do not report hate crimes, are the most targeted group for ethnic motivated victimizations according to the FBI which reported 561 anti-Hispanic hate crimes in 2008. While down from the record high of 595 in 2007, these attacks are up substantially from levels a decade ago when they were under 500.

Brutal Attack
Two young men, Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky were indicted on a federal hate crime charge for a deadly attack on Luis Ramirez, a 25 year old undocumented immigrant from Mexico. The two teenagers beat Luis Ramirez in a Shenandoah park after a brief verbal altercation as a small crowd yelled racial epithets on July 12, 2008. Another assailant, Colin Walsh, has previously pled guilty to federal charges connected to the attack.

The two young defendants were on their way home from a nighttime festival when the brutal beating occurred. Some of the statements made during the attack allegedly included "f--cking Spic" and "Tell your f---king Mexican friends to get the f--k out of Shenandoah." Mr. Ramirez, who suffered a coma, died two days after the attack without ever regaining consciousness. Blunt force trauma to the head was the official cause of death according to the medical examiner, who also ruled it a homicide.

Acquittals and Alleged Cover Ups
On May 1, 2009, Piekarsky and Donchak were convicted, but only of simple assault, on state charges by an all white jury in Schuylkill County. Both were acquitted of ethnic intimidation-Pennsylvania's hate crime law. In addition, Piekarsky was found not guilty of third degree murder, while Donchak was acquitted of aggravated assault. Colin Walsh and another teenager testified about Piekarsky's and Donacheck's role in the attack.

In the new federal cases both defendants were charged under a hate crime statute that makes it a federal offense to interfere with a person's housing rights on the basis of race through threat or force. They were also accused, along with members of the local police department of scheming to obstruct the investigation of the attack. According to the Department of Justice both civilian defendants could get life in prison for the hate crime charge, while Donchek faces additional prison time for his role in the conspiracy to obstruct justice. The Supreme Court has held that the constitution's Fifth Amendment protection from double jeopardy does not apply to charges levied by separate levels of government as is the case here. Also, as a technical matter the state and federal charges are different offenses.

Three police officers, including Shenandoah Police Chief Mathew Nestor were indicted for conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation of the attack and face up to 20 years in prison. One of the three also faces charges of making false statements to the FBI. Nestor and his second in command face additional federal corruption and civil rights charges related to another matter. One of those officers charged has a son who also played for the same high football team as the attack defendants. Another officer was dating Piekarsky's mother according to an indictment.

State of Fear
These charges come less than one month after Pennsylvania was singled out for having one of the worst hate crime reporting figures in the country. Analysts contend that reporting is a proxy for overall institutional responses to hate crime. The state, with a population of 12.4 million, reported only 68 hate crimes last year to the FBI from 31 agencies, while neighboring states had far higher numbers. New Jersey with a population of 8.7 million, counted 744 hate crimes from 202 agencies last year, while New York with a population 19.5 million, counted 570 hate crimes from 76 agencies, Maryland's 5.6 million residents had 100 hate crimes. Ohio reported 345 hate crimes, Delaware 58, and West Virginia 43. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that Pennsylvania had 37 hate groups in the state, the second largest number of any northern state. Pennsylvania reported between 185 and 432 hate crimes during the 1990s, and last year's numbers are the lowest ever reported by the commonwealth. A decade ago a fair housing advocate and her school-age daughter were forced to flee the state after local authorities in Reading, PA, who never officially reported any hate crimes to that time, failed to protect them from threats made by notorious local white supremacists causing state and federal authorities to partially intervene.

The attack and subsequent acquittals sparked outrage from Latino advocacy groups and civil rights leaders across the nation. Both the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell urged federal authorities to investigate the matter. MALDEF attorney Gladys Limon told the Associated Press in May, "It's just outrageous and very difficult to understand how any juror could have had reasonable doubt."
Her comments on today's developments: "Every life matters and violent actions fueled by hatred and intolerance will not be tolerated anywhere in America." Many commentators point
out that anti-Latino and Islamophobic sentiment has infected the debate over immigration control and reform. The Anti-Defamation League's longtime regional director for the area, Barry Morrison, said, "Today, our country loudly declared that this xenophobia and violence is intolerable, and that all of our communities are responsible for bringing perpetrators of hate to justice."

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said today, "Many people felt the original criminal verdicts in this case were outrageous, replays of the kind of jury nullification that was seen in the deep South during the civil rights movement. Today's indictments add weight to the idea that the killers of Luis Ramirez may have literally gotten away with murder. What is most shocking, however, is the allegation that corrupt local police officers participated in a cover-up of crimes allegedly committed by their neighbors."

Statement from Brian Levin on behalf of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism:

The disturbing allegations of outrageous police misconduct and collusion to cover up the true facts in the horrific killing of Luis Ramirez require the federal authorities to do exactly what they did. When local authorities and outcomes are marred by the kind of wanton abuse allegedly exhibited in this case, the processes and institutions of American justice are undermined. The Justice Department's intervention to right this miscarriage of justice is a welcome and necessary sign that racial killings of immigrants, including undocumented ones, on our streets have no place in a civilized society. It shows that our government will fulfill its obligation to justly punish not only those who kill, but also those who blatantly abuse the public trust by harboring, enabling or covering up for them.