A Schuylkill County jury late Friday acquitted two Shenandoah teens of all serious charges in the fatal beating of an illegal immigrant from Mexico, even though the jury foreman said he considers them "racists."
The jury found Brandon Piekarsky, 17, not guilty of third-degree murder and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, and Derrick Donchak, 19, not guilty of aggravated assault and assault with a deadly weapon in the attack last summer on 25-year-old Luis Ramirez.
Piekarsky and Donchak were both cleared of ethnic intimidation, and Piekarsky was also acquitted of criminal solicitation, underage drinking and reckless endangerment.
But the all-white jury, delivering its verdict at 10:40 p.m. after almost seven hours of deliberation, convicted Piekarsky of simple assault and Donchak of simple assault, furnishing alcohol to minors, corruption of minors, and purchase and consumption of alcohol.
When the verdict was read, the courtroom erupted in applause. The teens hugged each other, and Donchak rested his forehead on the defense table and wept. At least one juror also cried. Piekarsky's mother and sister ran to the teens, but a tipstaff sent them back to their seats.
Judge William E. Baldwin ordered a presentence investigation and will sentence the pair later.
Jury foreman Eric Macklin of Schuylkill Haven said he was the lone holdout when the jury voted 11-1 for acquittal at 5 p.m. after deliberating for just two hours.
"I think it's absolutely horrible what happened to Luis Ramirez," Macklin said. "I was very, very close to finding them both guilty on every serious count, but due to the evidence presented, I was not sure beyond a reasonable doubt. I do believe that all four boys involved are racists."
He said he took a lot of notes and after reviewing them, "I could not find them guilty. I feel very bad for Luis' friends and family. I know they feel they haven't gotten justice."
Frederick Fanelli, Piekarsky's attorney, said: "It's been a long, grueling trial, and the jury has spoken, and we're deeply appreciative of their verdict."
Donchak's attorney, Jeffrey Markosky, concurred. "We're very pleased at the jury's verdict. They saw the case as they should have -- as it really happened. It's a good day for the Donchak family."
District Attorney James P. Goodman said he was "disappointed with the verdict. It was a very difficult case for a number of reasons. We presented the best case we could." He said there were "many problems with the evidence," but would not go into detail.
The panel's wrangling apparently started just over an hour into deliberations. Even though Piekarsky was charged with third-degree murder and Donchak with aggravated assault, the jury asked the judge to explain the lesser counts against them -- ethnic intimidation, corruption of minors and reckless endangerment.
Almost six hours later, at 9:55 p.m., the jurors again asked Baldwin to define reckless endangerment. And at 10:20 p.m., they again asked him to explain ethnic intimidation.
The long deliberations by the six men and six women came after closing statements in which defense attorneys said prosecutors ignored evidence and witnesses whose accounts didn't fit the charges. Prosecutors told the jurors they should rely on the testimony of other teens who were with the accused that night, even if some doubts were raised.
Two of those teens also were charged. Brian Scully, 18, faces counts of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation in juvenile court. Colin Walsh, who admitted punching Ramirez with such force that his head bounced off the pavement, pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Ramirez's civil rights. As a result, third-degree murder and other state counts against the 18-year-old were dismissed.
"We do not have to rule out every doubt -- we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," Assistant District Attorney Robert Frantz said. "And we have done that."
But Fanelli said eyewitnesses identified Scully as the teen who kicked Ramirez in the head as he lay unconscious in the street after a fight July 12, perhaps causing a skull fracture that led to his death two days later. Police said the teens shouted ethnic slurs.
"There is not only reasonable doubt in the case, there is overwhelming doubt," Fanelli told the jury. "Is it possible Brian Scully was the kicker? If so, you have reasonable doubt.
"Scully and Walsh, their two star witnesses, got a pass. Their testimony was bought and paid for."
Fanelli said prosecutors didn't call Ramirez's friend Ariel Garcia as a witness. She testified for the defense that as she knelt beside Ramirez, she saw the final kick by someone wearing shoes that matched the description of those worn by Scully, not Piekarsky.
Markosky argued Ramirez should shoulder the blame for starting the fight. He said Ramirez was the aggressor after he and his 14-year-old fiancee, Roxanne Rector, encountered the group of teens near a borough park and Scully told Rector she was out late. The teens were headed home after a night of drinking.
"He wasn't going to allow this group of kids to disrespect his fiancee, and he was going after them," Markosky said.
In the prosecution's closing argument, with a photo of Ramirez projected on a screen, Frantz told jurors, "He was assaulted, he was beaten and he was killed for walking the streets of Shenandoah. And he didn't deserve that.
"Brandon Piekarsky went too far. A fight is a fight, but you never kick someone when he's down. That's never OK."
Neither defendant took the stand in the five-day trial. The defense rested Thursday after calling just four witnesses.
People milling around downtown Shenandoah as the jury deliberated expressed anxiety about the pending verdict.
Lifelong resident Andrew Micklesavage said people will be unhappy either way. "I'm hoping it doesn't cause a lot of chaos in the town," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun