9 Days of the Shenandoah Hate Crime Trial
Despite the endless testimonies and breaks in a Federal court trial being boring and drug out, there's a lot to be learned during these times, all legal terms aside. The verdict doesn't always tell the entire story.
Despite the seemingly endless testimonies and breaks in a Federal court trial, there's a lot to be learned during these times, all legal terms aside. The verdict doesn't always tell the entire story. The fidgety feet, rolling eyes and other gestures are very interesting details when the ultimate punishment can result in life in prison.
Judge Richard Caputo does not allow cameras in his courtroom, aside from the courtroom sketch artist, the only way to describe the sights, sounds and mannerisms can be done only through words.
The final three days of the Shenandoah hate crime trial involving the defendants Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak, who were accused of the beating death of Luis Ramirez on July 12, 2008 along with others, were long and tiring for all.
From the first Monday of court there was one consistency, the composure of the defendants. Piekarsky, (18) built like a your ideal high school football player exited the Scranton Court House during a brief recess. Piekarsky's face was stern and emotionless and stayed like that for the remainder of the hearings.
He would occasionally glare coldly in the direction of the media on the way in, but would never open his mouth. His eyes said it all, but then again, how is an 18 year-old who believes he is innocent supposed to respond to cameras and reporters in his face for the past two years?
Donchak (20) a more slender build, also walked along side his friend Piekarsky. The look of dread and nerves were more identifiable on the older defendants' face through the two weeks of trial, almost like a deer in the headlights. Both men arrived and departed together from hearings each day. It's interesting to note that the defendant's parents weren't nearly as friendly with each other as their sons.
The setting of the crime: Northeast PA
Having grown up only 20 miles north of Shenandoah in Hazleton PA, I remember this incident being a popular topic of discussion back in 2008 when it happened. Two years later, it's not mentioned very often. The general opinion for the fate of the two young men was and continues to vary with different opinions.
I remember hearing the news of Luis Ramirez's death. It surprised me, because although there's undeniable racial tension in Hazleton, the Latino community is large. It has been large for years now, and I think that people are getting used to the change and influx in latinos. When I say people, I mean the Caucasians. The Racism and xenophobia are still there, it's everywhere, but it's very discrete. It rarely escalates into a hate crime or violence of any kind. Even if you can argue that, hate crimes resulting in death is uncommon in the city of Hazleton.
Even with the city being segregated by Mayor Barletta's attempted ordinance to make Hazleton an English-only city and to discourage the hiring of undocumented, it might have done the city well in some ways. It has brought major media attention to the city over the past few years. And when people are watching, it's obvious that the racial problems will cease, at least for the time being. Before this, most people more than 40 miles outside of Hazleton probably never heard of the coal mining town, just like Shenandoah.
However, Shenandoah is slightly different. It's a microcosm of Hazleton. It's the same, but nearly half the size. The death of luis Ramirez has undoubtedly put little Shenandoah on the map, and not for better.
The situation that presented itself in that park on that warm summer evening is something that I feel is very common among teens. Teens get in fights, and it's often lopsided. Almost every fight that I witnessed in high school involved someone being cowardly outnumbered by a group.
You salted your wounds and moved on. But malt liquor and racism are a dangerous combination. Unfortunately, this time the victim wasn't so lucky.
The general consensus of these two young men from many people in the area is that they did not look remorse for the actions they were accused of. However, you have to ask how they're supposed to look in their given circumstances. If you look remorse, then you've obviously done something wrong. If you don't, then you look cold and unashamed. Whatever the case, the men were quiet and expressionless as possible.
The parents of the defendants acted as if nothing was wrong when they knew the media was present. During certain moments the look of dread and fear for their boys' was very apparent.
Tammy Piekarsky, the mother of Brandon, spent a lot of her time chain smoking between recesses by the stairs of the alternate entrance to the courthouse. Derrick Donchak's parents as their son, weren't as private about their emotions towards the trial. An aggravated and worrisome look always graced the faces of the Donchaks. Derrick seemed to be more polite and cordial and kind of had his head on a swivel as he vacated the courtroom doors each day.
Crystal Dillman, the girlfriend and mother of the victims children filtered in and out of the courtroom. When Joshua Redmond took the stand and confessed that the defendants were joking about getting a tattoo that said "RIP Lupe" on their rear ends, Dillman quickly exited the room which appeared to be disgust. She frequently left the courtroom, not always visibly distressed. She complained of a headache one of the times. She mostly sat with her head in her hand, holding back tears. She also showed frustration when defense attorney William A. Fetterhoff claimed that Ramirez could have walked away, "And he would still be alive today". Dillman looked to be the most frustrated out of anyone in the courtroom wearing her heart on her sleeve the days she attended the trial.
Though they did an admirable job of hiding it, defense seemed to improvise with their final statements. Defense Lawyers Fetterhoff and James A. Swetz's long introductions were confusing and poorly executed, not to mention extremely long. The jury fought to pay attention, but Fetterhoff's monotone banter seemed irrelevant throughout the entire hour of his testimony.
The closing arguments indicated where the trial was going. Federal Prosecutor Gerald Hogan rebutted everything the defense tried to scrounge up at last minute with fierce conviction. He strutted around the courtroom covering lots of ground, making his way over to the defendants at times.
He pointed a guilty finger in the faces of the defendants and stared into their eyes with certainty. His emotions and ability to speak with such poise were very persuasive. It was the first time during the trial where his passion and rage were unleashed. His calm and collected ways, were now behind him. He became aggressive like a lawyer from a movie. It looked as though Piekarsky staring back fueled Hogan even more. Piekarsky didn't take his eyes off of Hogan, as if he wasn't intimidated at all.
Thursday October 14, 2010:
Judge Caputo sent the jury on deliberation at about 10:25 a.m. From that point on, the defendants could be seen pacing in an uneasy manner. Donchak met his girlfriend across the street and was scene tossing a coin into a fountain as if he was making a wish. He spent some free time with her indicating that it could be his last.
The dreary, rainy day kept everyone in doors during deliberation. Journalists in the press room took down bets as to how long it would take until the jury reached a verdict.The rain came down harder as the day progressed.
Finally at 4:55, almost 6 and a half hours later, the guards at the metal detector indicated that the jury made its decision. News outlets stormed the metal detector throwing all of their change, cell phones and car keys into a bucket to pass through successfully so they can make their way up to the courtroom in time.
Everyone found a seat and watched the defendants enter the courtroom. All eyes turned to Piekarsky and Donchak who were visibly distraught and worried. It was the first time throughout the two-week trial that the defendants were visibly worried.
With their hands covering their faces and Donchak's knee bobbing rapidly, Tammy Piekarsky put her arms around her other children and looked up to the ceiling and whispered something while her were eyes shut.
An eerie silence filled the room to the point where you can hear Donchak's leg shaking even though he was a mere 30 feet across the room.
Judge Caputo revealed the verdict in a calm and stern voice. The Judge repeated the words guilty several times after every charge. Piekarsky picked his head up without showing any emotion as his friend Donchak started to sob. Piekarsky maintained his hollow glare while Derrick Donchak turned to his mother and said her name with a childish moan. The defendants were removed from the court in handcuffs.
Just like her son, Tammy Piekarsky left the court room with a disappointed snarl on her face while the media ran with her asking questions. It looked as if she was about to say something, but she kept it in and just continued walking into a nearby parking garage with her children. Donchaks parents took an umbrella and covered their faces while making a run for their car. There were no tears.