By Marisa Treviño
The U.S. Department of Justice won a recent conviction in a Pennsylvania courtroom that sent a powerful message to Latinos nationwide—the government will not tolerate hate crimes against immigrants, even if they are not U.S. citizens.
The federal government could easily have taken a hands-off approach after a state court jury acquitted Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak last year of serious charges in the July 2008 beating death of Eduardo Luis Ramírez Zavala in Shenandoah, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Instead, federal prosecutors aggressively pursued hate-crime charges against the defendants, who shouted anti-Hispanic slurs as the victim was beaten and kicked to death.
The guilty verdict was important for the nation.
Hate crimes against Latinos have been increasing as the debate over immigration policy has intensified. The FBI found that crimes against Latinos increased nearly 40 percent from 2003 to 2007. Furthermore, 65 percent of hate-crimes victims in 2008 were Latino, an increase from 51 percent in 2004.
Ramírez Zavala, 25, was an undocumented immigrant. Freeing Piekarsky and Donchak after their state court acquittals would have sent a message to the nation that taking the life of an undocumented immigrant incurs no penalty and could have triggered a new wave of violence against immigrants.
In October, when the defendants were found guilty in the federal case of violating Ramírez Zavala’s civil rights, they and their families were stunned. The all-white jury also found Donchak guilty on two counts related to a plot to cover up the beating.
In the state trial in May 2009, an all-white jury acquitted the pair of third-degree murder, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation charges. Each was convicted of simple assault, and Donchak was found guilty of two other minor charges. The men, who served several months in jail, had inflicted a beating so severe that Ramírez Zavala’s skull was fractured twice. He died two days later, leaving a wife and children in the United States and extended family in Mexico.
The verdict outraged immigrant groups, politicians and Latino communities. The federal government took the rare step of intervening and filing hate-crimes charges.
A hate-crime conviction may have been the last thing the defendants and their families expected, given what may have seemed frivolous federal charges compared with those filed in the state case. What they did not realize was how serious the federal government is becoming about hate crimes and about utilizing an important tool in exacting justice from bullies.
Unlike victims of hate crimes who are U.S. citizens, many such Latino victims are undocumented. Fearful of coming forward because of their citizenship status, those who survive such attacks often do not report the incident or their attackers.
The Ramírez Zavala case was so heinous, with witnesses reporting that they heard racial epithets hurled with every kick and blow, that it underscored the need and justification for hate-crime trials. These trials emphasize the government’s assurance to Latino migrants that, regardless of citizenship status, they are considered equals before U.S. courts.
The Justice Department is making a concerted effort to reach out to Latino communities nationwide to build a bridge of trust. Thomas E. Pérez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, brings the government’s message of justice to communities more accustomed to mistrusting law enforcement authorities than relying on their help.
Moreover, the federal government is steadily improving its record of convictions in hate-crime cases. According to Pérez, the department indicted 46 hate-crime defendants during the last fiscal year, the most in any year since 1996, and won 29 convictions, the most since 2000.
Hate crimes became easier to pursue in October 2009 when President Barack Obama signed a law allowing prosecution of hate crimes “motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and national origin.”
Under previous hate-crime statutes, prosecutors had to prove that the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity when attacked. The new law makes the attack alone sufficient to qualify as a hate crime.
Piekarsky and Donchak were 16 and 18, respectively, when they were charged in July 2008. They are being held in the Pike County Correctional Facility in Lords Valley, Pa., awaiting sentencing on Jan. 24. They face possible life terms—and a lifetime to reflect on the life that they destroyed.
Marisa Treviño is president of Treviño TodaMedia LLC and founder and publisher of Latina Lista, a blog that describes itself as “a community niche news site where the unwritten mantra is ‘national is local’."