06/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Latino Rodney King?

In my last post, I wrote about how many conservatives used the H1N1 flu outbreak to launch xenophobic attacks on Hispanics. But if the right wing's reaction to the swine-flu outbreak was a depressing example of the disgust that many Americans hold for Latinos, what are we to make of the news out of Pennsylvania?

Just over a week ago, a jury in that state acquitted two teenagers of beating a man to death in a street brawl. The case apparently had too many contradictory versions of the truth, with multiple witnesses unable to clarify who did what to whom and why. The bottom line is that the teens were convicted of lesser charges and will more or less go on with their lives.

What has caught the eye of Hispanics and people interested in civil rights is that the town where the crime took place, Shenandoah, has a history of racial tension. The victim, Luis Ramirez, was a Mexican immigrant. The teens, as well as the other kids who earlier pled guilty to lesser charges, were white. They jury was all white.

It is impossible to escape the perception, therefore, that a mob of angry whites can beat a Latino to death right in the street without fear of being punished. Of course, those of us who weren't at the trial (like me) can't definitively say that this is a miscarriage of justice. But at the risk of getting all knee-jerky, I have to say that it appears highly suspicious.

Lawyers for the teens admitted that the kids were drunk and got into a fight with Ramirez, who was apparently walking down the street, minding his own business. Prosecutors said that the teens flung racial epithets at Ramirez, then followed up with kicks and punches.

The result was that Ramirez ended up with his brain leaking out of his head, and he died two days later. For no one to be seriously punished over such a crime can only mean one of two things:

1. A Latino man living in an economically depressed small town, where racial issues have flared in the past, inexplicably provoked a group of drunken white males to fight him. They had no choice but to defend themselves by kicking him in the head repeatedly. Or

2. It's ok to bludgeon an immigrant to death.

The verdict would actually make more sense if the teens had been acquitted of all charges. In that case, the implication is that the boys had nothing to do with the fight or Ramirez's death. Instead, by convicting them of a lesser charge (simple assault), the jury basically said, "Yeah, you walloped the guy, and he died, but we don't think you should do time. It's not like he was anybody important."

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund is pressuring the Department of Justice to file federal charges against the teens. This, as you may recall, was the route that civil-rights groups took after the cops were acquitted in the Rodney King case.

Regardless of how it turns out this time, there is one big difference between the cases. Rodney King is still alive, and Luis Ramirez is not.