The Justice Department acknowledged Wednesday it has launched an investigation of the death of a Mexican immigrant in Pennsylvania to see if it should be prosecuted as a hate crime.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Hispanic rights groups had been pressuring for such a probe after an all-white jury acquitted two teenagers on state charges of ethnic intimidation and third-degree murder, convicting them on a lesser charge of simple assault.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, said the CHC raised the Pennsylvania case with Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting at the Justice Department.
Gonzalez is chairman of the CHC civil rights task force.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has been assured that investigators “will make whatever determination is appropriate to make, regarding filing any federal civil rights violations,” said Henry Solano, MALDEF interim president and general counsel.
MALDEF and the National Council of La Raza, which monitored the Pennsylvania case, want it reclassified as a hate crime.
Luis Ramirez, 25, an immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico living in Shenandoah, Pa., was attacked on July 12, 2008 by six high school football players. He later died from injuries suffered in the beating.
Witnesses heard the assailants shout ethnic epithets at Ramirez during the late night attack.
Brandon Piekarsky, 17, and Derrick Donchak, 19, were later acquitted on the more serious charges.
Janet Murguía, NCLR president, said she was unsure why jurors acquitted the teens, whether the prosecution failed to prove its case or whether the credibility of other assailants, who were prosecution witnesses, was at issue.
Last week, the U.S. House passed federal hate crimes legislation, 249 to 175. The bill, which would allow the Justice Department to assist local authorities in investigating and prosecutirng hate crimes, now goes to the Senate.
Latino rights groups said the legislation would help prosecute future cases of hate crimes against Hispanics and other minorities.
[Editor’s Note: MALDEF’s involvement in this case was the subject of an earlier story that can be read here.]
Two Pennsylvania teens acquitted of the most serious state charges in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant could still face federal charges.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division is reviewing evidence surrounding the fatal fight last summer between high school football players and illegal immigrant Luis Ramirez in predominantly white Schuylkill County, spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Tuesday.
A county jury last week acquitted Brandon Piekarsky, 17, of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation and Derrick Donchak, 19, of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Both were convicted of simple assault.
Both defendants are from the small, blue-collar town of Shenandoah, where the July 12 fight occurred when Ramirez, 25, was walking with a 15-year-old girlfriend and encountered a group of teens, at least some of whom had been drinking.
The case has exposed racial tensions in the area, which has attracted Hispanic immigrants in search of farm and factory work. Ramirez moved to the town about seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico.
Another defendant, Colin Walsh, pleaded guilty to a federal civil-rights charge before trial and testified at trial, admitting he threw a punch that knocked Ramirez unconscious. He could be out of prison in four years. Another defendant, 18-year-old Brian Scully, is charged juvenile court with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.
The simple assault convictions carry possible one- to two-year prison term. Sentencing has not been scheduled. Donchak was also convicted of corruption of minors and an alcohol charge.
Immigration-rights advocates attended the trial on behalf of Ramirez’s family, and later called for federal charges.
“Luis’s death reflects a steady increase of hate crimes targeting Latinos,” said Gladys Limon, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “This drastic rise of hate crimes against Latinos must be addressed by the new administration and Congress.”