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Shenandoah Hate Crime: The New Awakening of Crystal Dillman

By Gustavo Martinez Contreras

SCRANTON, PA — Crystal Dillman woke up Friday with a feeling so long ago missing in her that it was almost surreal.

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“I finally feel relief,” she said. “This is justice for me, my children and Luis.”

After more than two years, an all-white federal jury in Scranton, Pa., convicted Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak of a hate crime arising from the fatal beating of Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala, an undocumented immigrant.

The jury found the defendants from Shenandoah, Pa., guilty 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.

The jury took 6 1/2 hours Thursday to deliver a verdict. Each of these hours was filled with tension and uncertainty. For the first time, the defendants’ composure seemed less confident, after days in which they appeared relaxed and more at peace.

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 Mr. Piekarsky, charged only with one count. He put his hands to his face and started crying while Mr. Donchak’s legs started shaking as he bowed his head looking straight at the floor.

He soon heard the jury say “guilty, guilty, guilty” of all three charges pending against him.

Judge Richard A. Caputo ordered both men to be detained.

“The two are to remained detained pending sentencing to happen on January 24, 2011,” the judge said.

Mr. Donchak and Mr. Piekarsky face sentences of up to life in prison on the hate crime charge. In addition, Mr. Donchak faces up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction charge and five years on the conspiracy charge.

Both men also face a $250,000 fine and $100 special assessment.

“The fight’s not over,” James A. Swetz, Mr. Piekarsky’s lawyer, said after the verdict.

“We will file an appeal at its proper time, which is after the sentence,” William A. Fetterhoff, Mr. Donchak’s lawyer, said as he was leaving the courthouse.

But for Ms. Dillman this chapter seems to be finally over. She no longer has to sit alone and keep silent while hearing testimony of how her fiancée was insulted, punched, kicked and killed the night of July 12, 2008.

“Being there those days was hard but I had to do it for Luis,” she said.

Distant in time and memory was the day last year in which an all-white Schuykill county jury acquitted the two teens charged with ethnic intimidation and aggravated assault.

This latest verdict prompted the National Council of La Raza to issue a statement.

“Today’s verdict shows that hate crimes won’t go unpunished,” read the statement. “Many civil rights organizations are alerted of the increasing wave of intolerance across the country through the toxic tone surrounding the immigration debate, and Luis Ramirez’ case is a clear example of the serious and tragic consequences the rhetoric of hate has.”

But Ms. Dillman’s quest for justice is far from over. In January, she will be back in another federal court. This time for the trial of the three former Shenandoah police officers charged with conspiring to obstruct justice during the investigation into the fatal beating of Mr. Ramirez Zavala.

Mr. Moyer, one of the accused police officers, has also been charged with witness and evidence tampering, and with lying to the FBI.

In Ms. Dillman’s view, this verdict against Donchak and Piekarsky is not enough to change things in Shenandoah, a place from which she has moved since the brutal beating of her fiancee.

“All I can say is I pray it changes things for the better,” she said. “But I’m not sure it will happen.”

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