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Some satisfied, others outraged with verdict for immigrant's death

  • Story Highlights
  • Teens acquitted of murder, aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation
  • Verdict sends "extremely dangerous" precedent, advocacy group says
  • Schuylkill County prosecutors alleged the beating was racially motivated
  • Incident drew national attention to small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
By Emanuella Grinberg
CNN
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Friends and relatives of two teens accused in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant struggled to contain their relief as not-guilty verdicts were announced on the most serious charges against the former high school football stars Friday.

Derrick Donchak, 19, was charged with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.

Luis Ramirez died of blunt force injuries after a confrontation with a group of Pennsylania teens.

Gasps filled the courtroom and some had to be restrained by sheriff's deputies as they tried to rush the defense table after Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17, were acquitted of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation for the death of Luis Ramirez.

Piekarsky was also found not guilty of third-degree murder for the death of Ramirez, who died of blunt force injuries after an encounter with the teens last summer.

However, the all-white jury of six men and six women from Schuylkill County jury found Piekarsky and Donchak guilty of simple assault.

The case drew national attention to the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, highlighting race relations and polarizing the community on who was to blame for the incident.

Lawyers for the teens never denied that their clients were involved in a physical altercation with Ramirez on a residential street the night of July 12.

Instead, they tried to cast Ramirez as the aggressor, and suggested that the other teens involved in the tangle of punches and blows were to blame.

"In my mind it was the lack of evidence to tie these kids to the serious charges that they brought," defense lawyer Frederick Fanelli said.

A cast of witnesses provided conflicting accounts regarding who initiated the encounter and who exactly did what, complicating prosecutors' efforts to assign blame.

"If you ask most prosecutors who are dealing with multiple defendants, and in this particular case there were at least four, it is extraordinary difficult to clear the fog of a fight," truTV anchor Ashleigh Banfield said.

The 25-year-old Mexican immigrant had settled in Shenandoah a year before his death with his wife, a lifelong resident of the faltering mining town, and their young children.

He was walking down a residential street with a friend when he encountered the group of teens, who had been drinking earlier in the evening. Donchak was convicted of providing alcohol to the other teens who were involved in the confrontation, including a juvenile co-defendant and another teen who pleaded guilty in federal court for his role in the fight.

Prosecutors alleged that the teens baited the Ramirez into a fight with racial epithets, provoking an exchange of punches and kicks that ended with Ramirez convulsing in the street, foaming from the mouth. He died two days later in a hospital.

Piekarsky was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he was knocked to the ground.

As they poured out of courthouse, the teens' supporters shouted "I was right from the start" and "I'm glad the jury listened" at cameras that caught the late-night verdict.

But Gladys Limon, a spokeswoman for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the jury had sent a troubling message.

"The jurors here [are] sending the message that you can brutally beat a person, without regard to their life, and get away with it, continue with your life uninterrupted," she said.

"In this case, the message is that a person who may not be popular in society based on their national origin or certain characteristic has less value in our society," she said.

The extent of Ramirez's injuries, which had left his brain oozing from his skull, according to medical testimony, should have sufficed for a conviction other than simple assault, Limon said.

"The acts here were egregious in brutality and it's just outrageous and very difficult to understand how any juror could have had reasonable doubt, especially as to the aggravated assault and the reckless enganderment charges," she said.

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Limon said her group intends to press the Department of Justice to file federal charges against the teens.

"Luis Ramirez's family deserves vindication for his death," she said. "This incident has not only disrupted Luis Ramirez's family, but the entire community."

CNN's Brian Rokus contributed to this report.

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