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Shenandoah hate crime trial begins

By the CNN Wire Staff
Luis Ramirez was in a coma on life support before he died two days after he was beaten.
Luis Ramirez was in a coma on life support before he died two days after he was beaten.
  • Two men are accused of beating a Mexican immigrant following a night of drinking
  • If convicted, they could face life in prison
  • The case has divided a rural mining town and drawn national attention
  • Attorneys for the defendants say the government is trying to politicize the case

(CNN) -- Jury selection begins Monday in the federal hate crime case against two Pennsylvania men who are accused of fatally beating a Mexican immigrant while shouting racial epithets at him.

An all-white jury last year convicted Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak of misdemeanor simple assault, but acquitted

them of felony counts including aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and hindering apprehension.

The 2008 beating of Luis Ramirez and its aftermath divided the small, rural mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, along racial lines and drew national attention.

After the verdict, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommending the Justice Department pursue civil rights charges.

"The evidence suggests that Mr. Ramirez was targeted, beaten and killed because he was Mexican," Rendell wrote. "Such lawlessness and violence hurts not only the victim of the attack, but also our towns and communities that are torn apart by such bigotry and intolerance."

Jurors found Piekarsky not guilty of third-degree murder. Prosecutors alleged he delivered a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after Ramirez was knocked to the ground in the alcohol-fueled brawl on a residential Shenandoah street.

After last year's trial, the two were sentenced to up to 23 months in the county jail.

If convicted on the hate crime charges, Donchak and Piekarsky face a maximum penalty of life in prison. Donchak also faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted of obstruction, and an additional five years for conspiring to obstruct justice.

"Violence motivated by bigotry and hate has no place in America, and yet it remains all too prevalent in many of our communities," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez in the Justice Department statement announcing their indictment last year.

Once jury selection is finished in the federal case, the trial in the U.S. District Court in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is expected to take five days, according to information posted on the court's website.

For months, attorneys have been haggling over the details of the federal trial.

In a motion filed in August, lawyers representing Piekarsky and Donchak criticized a proposed jury question list federal prosecutors had submitted, claiming the question list included plans to question jurors about their registration to vote, their political philosophy, their attitude toward enforcing the law, the books they read and what bumper stickers they have on their car.

"The government has attempted to politicize this case from the beginning and its proposed questionnaire is but a further attempt to do so," the motion said.

They continued, "The premise for the government's questions on political philosophy is obvious. The government deems white, rural conservatives as likely bigots unable to apply the law and follow the court's instructions in this case. Not only is this premise insulting, it fails to further the court's obligation to ensure a fair and impartial jury."

The final question list approved by U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo has been sealed.

Last year, Pennsylvania prosecutors alleged a group of teens including Donchak and Piekarsky baited Ramirez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, into a confrontation following a night of drinking. Donchak was convicted of corrupting minors for providing the alcohol to his friends before the fight.

According to the federal indictment, Donchak and Piekarsky were walking home from a local festival when they encountered Ramirez, and attacked him on a street "by striking and kicking him while members of the group yelled racial slurs at him," the Justice Department said.

A medical examiner ruled Ramirez died from blunt-force trauma to the head, according to the indictment.