The Schuylkill County, Pa., justice system managed to do
something that insurance actuaries do with mixed results -- it has determined
not only the penalty for threats to a human life, but also the value of a human
- Norman E. Nickle, 54, who
lived in Pottsville, the county seat, was convicted of killing two
teenagers, and sentenced in April to two life terms, without possibility
of parole. Nickle�s only defense was that he was high on drugs and alcohol
at the time of the murders.
- Jarrid Finneran, of
Shenandoah, was sentenced to 2-1/2 to five years in prison after a jury
convicted him in December 2007 of pushing his girlfriend in front of a
car. Finneran said that the incident was the result of an accident, was
not deliberate, and that he and the victim continued their relationship
after the incident. The jury, however, convicted him of aggravated assault,
simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, and disorderly
- Kyle J. Bluge, 23, of
Frackville, admitted he shook a baby in April 2008 to try to stop the boy
from crying. A pediatrician testified that the physical abuse resulted in
significant brain injuries. Bluge, who will be sentenced Aug. 5, could
face 10 to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault.
- Mark P. Wilner, 40, of
Mahanoy City, in June was found guilty of simple assault after a bar fight
that led to injuries to the victim who, according to court testimony, had
begun the fight by punching a woman. Wilner could be sentenced, June 29,
to one to two years in state prison.
- However, the life of Luis
Eduardo Ramirez-Zavalo, 25, a Mexican who lived and worked in Shenandoah
before dying in June 2008 after a beating by a gang of about a half-dozen
drunken Shenandoah High School football players, is worth no more than 23
months in a county jail.
Judge William E. Baldwin sentenced Brandon J. Piekarsky, 17,
to six to 23 months, and Derrick M. Donchak, 19, to six to 20 months, June 17,
after an all white jury convicted them only of simple assault, a second degree
misdemeanor. Baldwin also sentenced Donchak to one year probation for three
counts of corruption of minors, a first degree misdemeanor that carries a
maximum sentence of two to five years in state prison; Donchak was also
sentenced to three months in prison on each of three counts of furnishing
alcohol to minors; the sentences would be served concurrently. His total
sentence is seven to 23 months in county jail.
The jury about six weeks earlier refused to convict
Piekarsky of criminal homicide, although witnesses said that it was Piekarsky
who kicked Ramirez in the head after he had already been on the ground; Ramirez
died two days later from the beatings, with medical evidence suggesting the
kick was the fatal blow. The jury also found both Piekarsky and Donchak not
guilty of aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, criminal
solicitation/hindering apprehension or prosecution, and ethnic intimidation,
although witnesses said they distinctly heard racial slurs and obscene language
during the beating.
In sentencing the two teenagers, Judge Baldwin, confined by
the jury�s verdict, said neither defendant showed remorse -- Donchak had even
worn a �Border Patrol� T-shirt to a party four months after the beating.
Contrary to defense claims, the judge ruled that the beating was not �a street
fight gone bad [but] a group of young athletes ganging up on one person.�
Because of the jury�s verdicts, the death of Ramirez could not be considered in
sentencing. Baldwin said that if the attack �wasn�t motivated by ethnic
intimidation, it was plain meanness. You don�t kick a man when he�s down.� Even
with the relatively light sentences, both defense attorneys said they were
Two of the gang were not charged, and two are likely to
spend more time in confinement than Piekarsky and Donchak, who are believed to
be the more aggressive of the gang. Brian Scully, 18, Shenandoah, was
previously ordered to spend 90 days in a treatment facility before sentencing,
expected at the end of summer. He could spend as much as three years in
juvenile detention. Colin J. Walsh, 18, Shenandoah Heights, whose state charges
were withdrawn after he pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation in federal
court, cooperated with state and federal authorities and testified against
Piekarsky and Donchak, was sentenced in federal court to up to nine years, but
could be released in four years because of his cooperation.
The beating and subsequent trial divided the region, and
brought national news media to the coalmine region of northeast Pennsylvania.
Thousands rallied against what they believed were lax immigration enforcement,
and argued that Ramirez would still be alive if he had not been an illegal
immigrant. Others argued that the area�s bigotry and racism was the cause for
the tension before the beating and continues to divide the people. The Pottsville
Republican-Herald, the county�s
only daily newspaper, reports that more than 4,400 comments were submitted to
its website the first three days of the five-day trial, but that many were not
posted because of vulgarity. The newspaper also reports that during the trial
the website recorded 72,000 unique users just for the trial coverage.
The case left a lot of questions, in addition to what many
saw as �jury nullification� of a murder. The Shenandoah police upon arriving at
the scene checked Latino witnesses for weapons rather than pursue the white
attackers, and then didn�t file charges for two weeks. Based upon previous
testimony, Judge Baldwin noted, �the boys were ushered around and given counsel
about getting their stories straight because it didn�t look good for Mr.
Ramirez.� Testimony had also revealed that one of the officers was not only in
a personal relationship with Piekarsky�s mother, but that he was living with
both of them. �There is a federal investigation ongoing,� the Schuylkill County
district attorney told the Republican-Herald. Further, the prosecution, which said it was pleased with the
sentence, refused to say why it didn�t put on the stand a retired Philadelphia
police officer who witnessed the beating and had called 911.
Most residents, those who believe that even a simple assault
charge was too much for what they still maintain is a �street brawl,� and those
who believe that the random gang got away with murder, seem to just want the
spotlight to shine on other towns, other issues. But, that isn�t likely for at
least a few more months.
Piekarsky and Donchak could still face significant prison
time. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the Anti-Defamation League, the Mexican
American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and other organizations have asked
the Department of Justice to pursue hate crime charges against Piekarsky and
Donchak. Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during the 1960s, the
Department of Justice was vigorous in bringing to trial and conviction,
especially in Southern jurisdictions, persons who either were not charged or
had received light sentences for attacks upon civil rights workers, blacks, and
their businesses and churches.
Shenandoah is a community of about 5,600, located in the
anthracite coal region, about100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The 2000
census revealed that 97.4 percent of the population is white, with about 20
percent of the population living below the poverty line.
During the early and mid-19th century, the population was
primarily English, Welsh, Irish and German immigrants, all of whom faced
discrimination from large numbers of second- and third-generation Americans who
objected to the influx of immigrants. Conflicts between the lower-class miners
and the supervisors and management of coal companies led to the rise of the Molly
Maguires, whose original purpose was to promote unionized labor and serve as
protection for the immigrants. Cultural and ethnic conflict led to violence
against the Mollies and the Mollies, in turn, becoming violent, especially as
other immigrants from southern and eastern Europe moved into the area,
sometimes taking jobs the northern Europeans thought belonged to them. By 1920,
the population peaked at about 25,000, falling after World War II when it no
longer became profitable for the robber barons to continue to strip the land of
It is many of the descendants of immigrants who now support
stronger immigration enforcement, and whose children and grandchildren carry
the prejudices that have formed the patina of the place once known as the �city
of churches�; it is the descendants of immigrants who have shown the prejudice
against a rising Hispanic population and whose attitudes may have fueled the
violence that led to the death of a Mexican immigrant who just wanted to work
and help raise his three children.
on this story were Rosemary R. Brasch, Brandi Mankiewicz, the office of the
clerk of courts of Schuylkill County, several Schuylkill County residents, and
the Pottsville Republican-Herald. Dr. Brasch is author of 17 books, a syndicated
columnist, and professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and recipient
of the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award. You may
contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com.