By Gustavo Martinez Contreras
Guilty. It was a verdict the defendants, Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak, were not expecting. After all, Piekarsky had already been acquitted of third-degree murder and both were acquitted of ethnic intimidation during a weeklong trial last year for the Shenandoah, Pa., beating death of Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala.
(L-R) Derrick M. Donchak and Brandon J. Piekarsky
So when a grand jury later indicted the pair for hate crime charges stemming from the assault against Ramirez Zavala, the men must have thought the second time around in court would yield the same outcome.
Yet with hate crimes against Latinos on the rise nationally, the government’s pursuit of a trial against the two men and the resulting guilty verdict delivers a very clear message — hate crimes are serious and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
The hate crime
On October 14, 2010, two years after the attack on Ramirez Zavala, a federal jury in Scranton, Pa., convicted Piekarsky and Donchak of the hate crime of violating the criminal component of the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it a crime “to use a person’s race, national origin or ethnicity as a basis to interfere, with violence or threats of violence, with a person’s right to live where he chooses to live.”
In addition, the jury found that Donchak conspired to, and did in fact, obstruct justice in the beating death of Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala.
It was the night of July 12, 2008 when, Piekarsky, 18, and Donchak, 20, were among a group of six men who confronted Ramirez Zavala.
They hit and kicked him while members of the group yelled and screamed racial slurs, –“Go back to Mexico,” and “Tell your f***ing Mexican friends to get the f*** out of Shenandoah.”
Ramirez Zavala was beaten, kicked and stomped on. The autopsy showed that his skull had a double fracture: one in the back of the head and another on the left side. This latter injury so serious that his brain oozed out and swelled, causing his basic functions to stop.
Ramirez Zavala died two days later of massive head injuries.
This was not the first time Donchak and Piekarsky had gone to court. In 2009, an all-white Schuykill County jury acquitted them of racial intimidation charges.
The jury only found Piekarsky guilty of one count of simple assault, while Donchak was found guilty of one count of simple assault, three counts of corruption of minors and three counts of furnishing alcohol to minors.
The verdict outraged immigrants’ rights organizations, as well as politicians, who pressured the Department of Justice to open a separate investigation.
It wasn’t until December 2009 that a federal grand jury indicted both men on a hate crime charge.
In opening statements of the men’s hate crime trial, defense attorneys downplayed race as a factor in the beating death of Ramirez Zavala.
“We’re talking about alcohol, youth and testosterone; those are the themes in this case. Not race, and certainly not federally guaranteed housing rights,” Piekarsky’s lawyer, James Swetz, told the all-white jury.
But later in the trial, a key witness and friend to the defendants, Colin Walsh, told how Donchak exhibited a deep hatred towards the growing Hispanic community.
“Yes, he didn’t like Hispanics; he really didn’t like them,” Walsh testified. “He called them f***ing Mexicans, f***ing Spics.”
In his account of the attack, Walsh said that both Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky yelled racial slurs at Ramirez Zavala.
“He was yelling at him, ‘f***ing Mexican’,” Walsh said of Donchak. “Later I heard him yell ‘Tell your f***ing Mexican friends to leave Shenandoah or you’ll be f***ing lying next to them’ as we were leaving.”
Rise in hate crimes and pursuit of justice
Hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise, according to the latest FBI Unified Crime Report.
In 2008 alone, hate crime statistics report that 65 percent of hate crime victims targeted for ethnicity and national origin were Latino. That’s a 14 percent jump from 2004 when Latinos comprised 51 percent of these victims.
It’s an alarming increase that the Department of Justice has noticed. Knowing that most undocumented immigrants, usually the intended victims of ethnic-based hate crimes, are reluctant to come forward for fear of reprisals or even deportation, representatives of the Department of Justice (DOJ) are actively reaching out to Latino communities.
Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“Prosecuting hate crimes is a top priority for the President, the Attorney General and the Civil Rights Division,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
In fact, prosecution of hate crimes is now easier to pursue since President Obama signed into law in October 2009 the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It allows prosecution of hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and national origin without having to show, as before, that the defendant was engaged in a federally protected activity.
In the last full Fiscal Year, the DOJ indicted more hate crimes defendants, 46, than in any year since 1996; convicted more hate crimes defendants, 29, than in any year since 2000; and filed more hate crimes cases, 24, than in any year since 2001, according to Perez.
“Insulated, exurban or rural communities where residents are unaccustomed to waves of immigration have seen increases in biasâ€motivated incidents,” Perez said. “Ignorance and fear, coupled with the often heated rhetoric in Washington and in many state capitals, have no doubt fueled an increase in biasâ€related incidents against Latinos nationwide.”
While Perez said he prefers to collaborate with local and state law enforcement to help states and local municipalities enforce their own hate crime statutes, he realizes there’s a need in certain cases for DOJ involvement.
“Cases like the one in Shenandoah, PA, where a group of teenagers fatally assaulted a Mexican immigrant, and a group of police officers helped to cover it up, highlight the need for interventions in such communities,” Perez said.
Throughout the days of testimony in the hate crime trial against Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak, evidence was produced confirming the latter conspired with some of his friends, their parents, and members of the Shenandoah Police Department to obstruct the investigation of the fatal assault.
Witnesses testified that Piekarsky told them repeatedly not to tell anybody he had kicked Ramirez Zavala in the head. Witness Benjamin Lawson told the jury that Piekarsky arrived at the Donchak house with his mother. As the teens talked about the fight, they realized the gravity of their situation and the need to come up with a cover story.
“We were going to say that nobody kicked him; that there was no drinking, and there were no racial slurs. We all agreed,” Lawson testified.
While the jury in the first trial found it hard to convict the young men for the brutal assault, the jury in the second trial had no such problem. After only six and a half hours of deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts for both men.
It was a scene distant and distinct from what happened on May Day 2009, when Donchak, Piekarsky, their families and friends cheered and jumped after their acquittal.
This time around, when the jury read the verdict of guilty as charged, both men trembled and sobbed for the first time in public. The first one to learn his fate was Piekarsky, charged only with a hate crime. He took his hands to his face and started crying while Donchak’s legs started shaking as he bowed his head looking straight to the floor.
In addition to the hate crime, Donchak was also found guilty of aiding and abetting and conspiring a cover-up after the beating. Donchak’s accomplices in the cover-up, former members of the Shenandoah Police Department, are facing an array of charges, from witness and evidence tampering to lying to the FBI and are awaiting trial.
Piekarsky and Donchak are currently held at the Pike County Correctional Facility pending sentencing on January 24, 2011.
Both face life in prison.
“I finally feel relief. This is justice for me, my children and Luis,” said Crystal Dillman, Ramirez Zavala’s widow.
But this verdict, she said, is not enough to change things in Shenandoah, from where she has since moved.
“All I can say is I pray it changes things for the better,” she said. “But I’m not sure it will happen.”
Gustavo Martinez Contreras is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. “A just verdict for a hateful crime: The Shenandoah hate crime trial” was funded by Spot.us through the support of the many readers, friends and families of MartÃnez Contreras and Latina Lista.