By John J. Moser | Of The Morning Call
April 23, 2009
The trial of two of the three men charged with fatally beating an illegal immigrant in Schuylkill County while shouting racial slurs in July will be heard by an all-white jury.
The six-man, six-woman panel was selected Wednesday to hear the cases of Brandon J. Piekarsky, 18, and Derrick M. Donchak, 19, both of Shenandoah, who are scheduled to be tried starting Monday in the death of Luis Ramirez, 25, a Mexican who had lived in the borough for six years.
Four alternate jurors are scheduled to be chosen today.
Ramirez died two days after a July 12 beating, which police said came after the teens and others, after a night of drinking, encountered Ramirez in a dark borough alley.
Piekarsky and Donchak, both white, also face ethnic intimidation and other counts.
The jury was seated after less than eight hours of questioning by county President Judge William E. Baldwin, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Nearly a dozen potential jurors were dismissed after they said they couldn't be impartial in a case involving an illegal immigrant.
''If [immigrants] weren't here illegally, it wouldn't have happened,'' one woman told Baldwin.
Another, asked what she knew about the case, told the judge, ''Some boys picked on a Hispanic man and he was accidentally killed. ... I don't think they meant to kill him.''
A man said, ''I feel that anyone who's here illegally doesn't have the same rights as someone who's here legally.''
Schuylkill County's population is 96.6 percent Caucasian, and just 1.1 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Just one of the more than 60 potential jurors was of color. That resident was dismissed because he also said he couldn't be fair in a case involving race.
''I personally had some hatred toward me in the past,'' he told Baldwin. ''I think it'd be hard for me to be fair and impartial.''
Outside the courtroom, the man who declined to give his name or ethnicity said, ''We live in an area that's not ethnically aware.''
District Attorney James P. Goodman declined to comment about the jury's racial makeup or potential jurors' comments.
But attorney Frederick Fanelli, who represents Piekarsky, and Jeffrey Markosky, who represents Donchak, were pleased with the selected jury, Fanelli said.
''The jurors we picked seemed alert, honest and attentive,'' Fanelli said. ''I can't comment on how someone feels or doesn't feel about a particular issue, but I'm glad they were honest and forthright about their personal beliefs.''
The case has generated national interest because of its alleged racial motivation. There were protests at the preliminary hearing last year and court officials expect more for the trial. Baldwin last week barred protests within a quarter-mile of the courthouse to keep them away from jurors. There were no signs of protests Wednesday.
A third man charged in the case, Colin Walsh, 18, of Shenandoah, on Friday had all charges filed against him in Schuylkill County Court dropped after court documents indicated he has pleaded guilty in federal court. Records of the pleas have not been made public, and it's unclear to what charges Walsh has admitted.
The charges withdrawn were third-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, aggravated and simple assault, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation in the death.
Piekarsky faces the same charges. Donchak is charged with assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault.
Walsh's name was on a lengthy list of potential witnesses Baldwin read to potential jurors to gauge whether they knew or have had any dealings with them. No potential jurors said they knew him or the other defendants.
Baldwin told the jury pool there may be an argument of self-defense in the case and, ''if that comes up, it will be up to the commonwealth to prove that was not the case.'' He also said the defendants have no burden to prove their innocence and may choose to not testify or present evidence.