May 4th, 2009
11:04 PM ET

Rage and death in Shenandoah

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more about the case from Soledad O'Brien on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/04/art.hate.crime.pa2.jpg caption="A police car outside an entrance to the courthouse on the first day of the trial."]

Brian Rokus
Producer, CNN Presents

For nine months, the community of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania waited to learn the fate of three high school football players. A late-night street fight last July had left illegal Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez dead and these teenagers facing a range of charges, including murder. During those months, vigils were held, protesters against illegal immigration came to town, and protesters for immigration reform came to town. The case’s August preliminary hearing was briefly delayed when demonstrators drowned out the proceedings inside the court. Finally, a trial date of April 27 was set.

But there would be one more development before a jury would hear the case. Just weeks before trial, one of the teammates, Colin Walsh, took a federal plea deal and agreed to testify against his friends in court. Now there would be only two defendants – Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak. Piekarsky faced third-degree murder while both faced assault and ethnic intimidation charges.

After a summer of protests and tension, police had prepared for large groups of protesters, going so far as to enforce a quarter-mile protest exclusion zone around the court house. Local TV stations reported that Sheriff's deputies' vacations had been restricted for the trial and that all attendees would have to pass through two metal detectors to get into the courtroom.

It was, then, surprising to arrive at 8am on the first day of trial to find only police standing in the parking lot. No protesters (three would later be discovered standing silently in front of the courthouse), no line waiting to get into the courtroom, nobody. And here's how it went down:

When arguments begin at 9am, Courtroom Number One of the Schuylkill County Courthouse was half empty. One reason might be that while the courtroom is grand and ceremonial (right out of a Perry Mason or Law and Order episode), it also lacks air conditioning on a day when temperatures reach a record high in the 90s. It might also be because the high school had threatened that any student spotted by school staff at the trial would be prohibited from marching in the graduation ceremony.

Those who do attend see a parade of stunned high school students walk into the massive courtroom and nervously be directed to their place on the witness stand and then testify in mostly one-word or one-sentence answers about what happened on the night that ended with a man dying in the street. One – a teammate being charged as a juvenile – admits to unleashing a variety of ethnic slurs against Ramirez. There are competing versions as to who started the fight, who tried to stop it and who, at the end of it, was responsible for Ramirez’s death.

By Wednesday, just three days into a planned two-week trial, the prosecution rests, and the judge tells the jury that they are forbidden from watching that night’s Law and Order episode which dramatizes the killing of illegal immigrants by high school athletes. The timing of the episode’s airing, the judge speculates, is “not a coincidence.” The next day it takes the defense only about three hours and four witnesses to present its case. A two week trial suddenly wraps up so quickly that the judge recesses for the remainder of the day so that each side has time to prepare its closing statements. By 3pm Friday, the jury has the case.

And the waiting begins.

The questions – and rumors – start flying through the courthouse. How late into the night will the judge keep the jury? Will they bring them back on Saturday? Will they be sequestered? Will it be Monday until there’s a verdict? It gets late. A cart full of pizza and sandwiches is delivered for the jury and court staff. Reporters, the public and even the defendants start pacing the hallways of the now empty courthouse, everyone just nodding to each other as they pass.

There are a few false alarms as everyone hurriedly gathers in the courtroom only to hear the judge again define one of the charges for the jury. As 10pm approaches, it's unclear if the late hour means the jury is getting closer to a verdict or closer to a stalemate.

By 10:45pm, at last, there’s a verdict. Most of those remaining are family and friends. And then - gasps as the jury finds the defendants not guilty on all but the more minor charges. An impromptu celebration erupts as supporters leave the courthouse, one yelling, “I was right from the start!”

But in downtown Shenandoah, there’s a different mood at the Oyster Bar’s weekly “Latino Night.” Some patrons are shocked, others say that there has been a miscarriage of justice. “I just don’t understand how this could have happened,” says one man.

The answer might be found in what lead prosecutor Robert Frantz told the jury five days earlier during his opening arguments: “Evidence in a trial is like a jigsaw puzzle given to you in a clear plastic bag… Eventually you see the picture.”

It seems that different people see the picture differently.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Hate Crime • Race in America
soundoff (No Responses)

Comments are closed.