Hate crime acquittal exposes problems in enforcing bias laws
By JESSE WASHINGTON
AP National Writer
May 12, 2009
Teenagers, a small town and alcohol. Tension between whites and a growing Hispanic population. Ethnic slurs, punches and kicks. A dead illegal immigrant from Mexico.
The acquittal of white Pennsylvania teenagers of all serious charges this month in the death of Luis Ramirez has become a rallying cry for justice among Hispanics who feel increasingly under attack here in America. It also has exposed difficulties in enforcing hate crime laws designed to keep minorities from becoming targets.
Civil rights groups and elected officials were planning a news conference Wednesday to urge the Justice Department to prosecute the Ramirez case after the state-court acquittals, and to renew calls for passage of a federal hate crimes bill that would expand enforcement and extend protection to gay and transgender individuals.
The bill has passed the House, and President Barack Obama has said he will sign it.
Even with the new law, prosecutors still would have to delve into the minds of people accused of committing crimes based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
That can be easy when a swastika is sprayed on a synagogue. It can be harder to pinpoint the emotions that make a random encounter turn deadly.
"To prove someone's state of mind beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore the motivation someone had to commit a crime, that can be very difficult," said Morgan Scott, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who currently teaches law at Roanoke College. He favors using hate crime prohibitions as a factor in sentencing, where the standard of proof is lower.
"You can say, OK, they hated Hispanics, but that doesn't prove that was the reason why they did THIS crime," said former federal prosecutor Sunny Hostin.
She said bias crimes that end in death are even harder to prove because the victim can't testify: "You have to link the defendant to the murder, and now you have another hurdle to prove the reason they did it, inside their head."
But Hostin says the laws still need to be enforced. "It's not only about punishment, it's about deterrence," she said. "In a society that's always evolving, you need to send a message that hate will not be tolerated."
On July 12, a half-dozen high school football players were headed home from a block party in the coal town of Shenandoah, Pa., which has attracted Hispanic immigrants with jobs in factories and farm fields. They came across Ramirez, 25, and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park.
An argument broke out and the football players hurled ethnic slurs, although lawyers disputed who said exactly what. Defense attorneys called Ramirez the aggressor.
Soon Ramirez and Brandon Piekarsky were trading punches. Derrick Donchak jumped in — his lawyers said to break up the fight — and wound up on top of Ramirez. Prosecutors said he pummeled Ramirez while gripping a small piece of metal to give his punches more power; defense attorneys denied he had a weapon.
The fight wound down but the argument continued. Ramirez charged the group. He was knocked out by a punch to the face. Prosecutors said he was killed by Piekarsky's kick to the head; defense lawyers said another teen delivered the fatal blow.
Piekarsky was acquitted by an all-white jury of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation; Donchak was acquitted of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Both were convicted of simple assault, which carry possible one- to two-year prison sentences.
The May 1 verdicts were decried by Hispanic advocates who say Ramirez's death is part of a rising tide of hate crimes against Latinos.
"This was not a tragedy in isolation. It's just representative of what we're seeing nationwide," said John Amaya, an attorney for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"Sure, in the heat of passion people say things they wouldn't otherwise, and when rage and anger are present anything can be said," Amaya said. "On some level we all have our prejudices. They may not all be malicious, but in the heat of the moment, when passion is lashing out, your true core principles kind of come out."
FBI statistics show an increase from 595 Hispanic victims of hate crimes in 2003 to 830 in 2007, the most recent year available. But the situation may be more complex than those numbers reveal.
Reporting is inconsistent from state to state — the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center reports zero hate crimes from 2007, for example. Other jurisdictions may be classifying incidents previously considered minor as hate crimes. And many Hispanics don't report hate crimes due to immigration enforcement fears, advocates say.
Then there are the gray areas, like when black vandals spray the N-word on a black person's home, or when Latino men use the N-word while beating up a black panhandler but are not charged with a hate crime — or when the state of Maryland passes a law to outlaw hate crimes against homeless people.
"It's very hard to second-guess the motivation from outside the case," said Frederick Lawrence, dean of the George Washington University Law School and author of "Punishing Hate: Bias Crimes Under American Law."
"But it's always a mistake to look to the criminal justice system to solve every aspect of a social problem," he said. "There are ways it plays an important and critical role, but it's a mistake to think that's the whole answer."