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The Got Away With Murder in a Pennsylvania Coal Town

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 life.

? 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 conduct.

? 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 contemplating appeals.

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, CITYYwas 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 coal mine 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 a 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 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 anthracite coal.

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.

WALTER 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

[Assisting 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.

 

 

 

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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