When her fiance and the father of her two children was beaten to death last year in Shenandoah, Pa., Crystal Dillman predicted that justice would not prevail.
“I think they might get off,” Dillman told The New York Times last August in reference to the four teenagers charged in the beating of Luis Ramirez, “because Luis was an illegal Mexican and these are ‘all-American boys’ on the football team who get good grades, or whatever they’re saying about them. They’ll find some way to let them go.”
It seems they did. In most parts of the country, the cowardly and hateful act of beating someone to death – while shouting racial slurs, according to witnesses – would be called by its proper name: murder.
Curiously though, in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County, an all-white jury came up with another name for it: simple assault.
That’s what 19-year-old Derrick Donchak and 17-year-old Brandon Piekarsky were convicted of recently after jurors threw out more-serious charges of ethnic intimidation and third-degree murder in the beating death of the 25-year-old Ramirez, who had lived in Shenandoah for about a year.
This verdict makes no sense to me. When I read the comments of jury foreman Eric Macklin, it seems the jury didn’t do much thinking or processing of evidence.
According to Macklin, jurors were too busy indulging their prejudice and perhaps looking for a way to spare the teenagers long prison sentences.
“I believe strongly that some of the people on the jury were racist,” Macklin told reporters after the verdict. “I believe some of the people on the jury had their minds made up before the first day of the trial.”
One of the jurors, Josh Silfies, took exception to that.
“It was really not as cut and dry as a couple of white kids beat up a Mexican and killed him,” Silfies told reporters. “It’s not like that. I sat there for a week and heard the testimony and heard the evidence, and I had a lot of doubt that these boys were heinous.”
A lot of what happens in the court system is all about empathy. The jury might have found it easier to relate to the teenagers sitting at the defendants’ table than to an illegal immigrant from Mexico lying in the morgue.
The prosecutors didn’t have to prove that the teenagers were heinous, only that they committed a heinous act.
The facts spoke for themselves, unless you buy the yarn spun by defense attorneys that this was simply a “fight” that ended badly. That tends to happen when the fight is four against one.
Should we comb through the thousands of lynchings of African-Americans in the South and Hispanics in Texas and reclassify them as fights? What about the countless acts of anti-gay hate crimes that occur each year? Are those also properly thought of as scuffles that got out of hand?
As of now, it’s unclear what’s going to happen to Piekarsky and Donchak. Their sentencing on the assault conviction is scheduled for June 17.
Another teenager, Colin Walsh, faces up to eight years in prison as part of a federal plea agreement, the details of which were sealed. A fourth was charged as a juvenile; those proceedings are also sealed.
Don’t miss the irony amid this tragedy. According to media reports, Mexican immigrants such as Ramirez are going to Shenandoah to take jobs on farms and in factories.
This is precisely the kind of work that, a generation or two ago, would have gone to young people looking for jobs after high school graduation. Now, these have become, so we’re told in the immigration debate, “jobs Americans won’t do.”
And teenagers are left with too much time on their hands and too little compassion for those who work hard.
The verdict has sparked outrage around the country. Some blame the anti-Latino poison-infecting talk radio and cable television.
Boston radio talk show host Jay Severin was recently suspended for calling Mexican immigrants “primitives” and “leeches” along with other inflammatory comments.
Meanwhile, more than 25,000 people signed an online petition demanding that the Justice Department bring federal charges against Piekarsky and Donchak.
According to a Justice Department spokesman, the civil rights division is currently reviewing the case.
If there is evidence of a civil rights violation, the Obama administration should absolutely bring indictments. After all, a nation’s greatness is determined not only by what it provides but also by what it won’t allow.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org