After Fatal Beating, Racial Tension, and Police Corruption, Shenandoah Inches toward Justice

In the case of the fatal beating of Luis Ramirez, a federal grand jury recently delivered indictments that included the commission of a hate crime, obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and extortion.
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In Shenandoah, PA, the community is inching its way toward justice.

Three federal indictments that include commission of a hate crime, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, official misconduct, and extortion have been recently handed down by a federal grand jury in the case of the fatal beating of Luis Ramirez. On July 12, 2008, Ramirez was beaten to death when his alleged assailants attacked him in the street on their way home from a town festival, kicking and hitting him while members of the group yelled racial slurs. Ramirez died from the injuries he sustained in that hateful attack, leaving behind his partner and their two children, whose interests the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) represented in court soon thereafter.

In spite of the horrific details of the crime, damning evidence, and a number of serious criminal charges, the state trial released the defendants with little more than a slap on the wrist. This was not a trial for a petty infraction mind you, but rather a case whose outcome should have found justice for a man's death and for his surviving family. Therefore, MALDEF called upon the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the fatal beating and the accounts of police misconduct that were brought forth in testimony at the trial.

The indictments, just unsealed yesterday after being returned on December 10, 2009, allege that Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky--the primary defendants in the murder trial--and others, including some members of the Shenandoah Police Department, conspired to obstruct the investigation of Ramirez's murder. An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence of guilt, so justice still has yet to be served.

If convicted, Donchak and Piekarsky would face the maximum penalty of life in prison for the hate crime charge.

Shenandoah Police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lieutenant William Moyer, and Police Officer Jason Hayes are also facing charges of conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation. Moyer has further been charged with lying to the FBI and witnesses and tampering with evidence. The obstruction charges carry penalties of 20 years in prison per count, and the defendants could each face an additional five years for conspiring. Moyer faces another five years of prison time for his additional charges.

Chief Nestor and Captain Jaime Gennarini have also been charged with multiple counts of extortion and civil rights violations that extend far beyond this one case. If convicted, they each face a maximum penalty of 20 years for each extortion count and a maximum penalty of ten years for conspiracy to violate civil rights.

In a statement from the DOJ, Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, said, "The power granted to law enforcement officers does not place them above the law. We will continue to aggressively enforce the law to combat obstruction and corruption in law enforcement agencies. We thank the FBI for their work in this investigation. Violence motivated by bigotry and hate has no place in America, and yet it remains all too prevalent in many of our communities. The Civil Rights Division stands ready to bring perpetrators of hate crimes to justice."

As Attorney General Eric Holder has declared before, it looks like the Civil Rights Division is indeed "back and open for business." Given the rise in hate crimes against Latinos in recent years, which we've written about here, here, and here, this indictment sends a message not only to Shenandoah, but to all Americans, that violence against anyone, including Latinos, cannot and will not be tolerated. The DOJ should be applauded for being deliberate and thorough in their investigation, which will hopefully begin the process of healing from hate for the Ramirez family, Shenandoah, and our nation.

Read more here and here.

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