Some are calling it proof that the justice system works, others, a travesty of justice that sends an "extremely dangerous" message that you can beat an undocumented immigrant to death and get away with it.
Two Pennsylvania teens were acquitted Friday of the most serious charges in the death of Luis Ramirez, who died of blunt force injuries to the head after a physical encounter with the teens turned fatal. The 25-year-old Mexican immigrant had settled in Shenandoah a year before his death with his wife, a lifelong resident of the faltering mining town, and their young children. He was walking down a residential street with a friend the night of July 12 when he encountered the group of high school football players. Prosecutors alleged that Brandon Piekarsky, 17, and Derrick Donchak, 19, baited the Ramirez into a fight with racial epithets, provoking an exchange of punches and kicks that ended with Ramirez convulsing in the street, foaming from the mouth. He died two days later in a hospital. The incident drew national attention to the small town of Shenandoah, highlighting issues of race relations. Gasps filled the courtroom in Pottsville Friday as not-guilty verdicts were announced on charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation for the teens. The gasps came from relatives of the defendants, who had to be restrained by sheriff’s deputies as they tried to rush the defense table to congratulate the teens. Ramirez’s sole supporter, his wife, Crystal, had left the courtroom before the verdicts announced. Piekarsky was also acquitted of third-degree murder for allegedly delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez’s head after he was knocked to the ground. As they poured out of courthouse, the teens’ supporters shouted “I was right from the start” and I’m glad the jury listened” at cameras that caught the late-night verdict.
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But Gladys Limon, a spokeswoman for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the jury had sent a troubling message. “The jurors here [are] sending the message that you can brutally beat a person, without regard to their life, and get away with it, continue with your life uninterrupted,” she said. “In this case, the message is that a person who may not be popular in society based on their national origin or certain characteristic has less value in our society,” she said. The jury foreman told CNN that the evidence didn’t point to a conviction on the top charges. Instead, the all-white jury of six men and six women from Schuylkill County jury found Piekarsky and Donchak guilty of simple assault. They also convicted Donchak of providing alcohol to the other teens who were involved in the confrontation, including a juvenile co-defendant and another teen who pleaded guilty in federal court for his role in the fight. While jurors heard conflicting testimony from several witnesses regarding who initiated the altercation and who exactly did what, defense lawyers tried to cast Ramirez as the aggressor, and suggested that the other teens involved were to blame. “In my mind it was the lack of evidence to tie these kids to the serious charges that they brought,” defense lawyer Frederick Fanelli said. “I think if you ask most prosecutors who are dealing with multiple defendants, and in this particular case there were at least four, it is extraordinary difficult to clear the fog of a fight,” truTV anchor Ashleigh Banfield. “In this partiuclar case, Mr. Piekasrky, it is alleged he delivered the fatal kick, but other defendants said otherwise.” The extent of Ramirez’s injuries, which had left his brain oozing from his skull and an impression of the religious medallion he was wearing into his chest, according to medical testimony, should have sufficed for a conviction other than simple assault, Limon said. “The acts here were egregious in brutality and it’s just outrageous and very difficult to understand how any juror could have had reasonable doubt, especially as to the aggravated assault and the reckless enganderment charges,” she said.
Limon said her group intends to press the Department of Justice to file federal charges against the teens. “Luis Ramirez’s family deserves vindication for his death,” she said. “This incident has not only disrupted Luis Ramirez’s family, but the entire community.”