POTTSVILLE -- Three teens were ordered Monday to stand trial in the beating death of an illegal immigrant from Mexico after a friend of the defendants testified that the victim was sucker-punched and kicked in the head during a late-night, epithet-filled melee.
Luis Ramirez's death last month has increased racial tensions in the town of Shenandoah, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and yelling from protesters outside the courthouse forced a brief delay of Monday's preliminary hearing.
District Judge Anthony Kilker ruled that prosecutors had enough evidence to try Colin Walsh, 17, and Brandon Piekarsky, 16, on counts of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation. He threw out first- and second-degree murder charges against the pair, which means they no longer face the possibility of life prison sentences if convicted.
A third defendant, Derrick Donchak, 18, was ordered to stand trial on aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other counts.
Ramirez, 25, was attacked July 12 when he crossed paths with a group of current and former high school football players. The suspects, all Shenandoah residents, played football at Shenandoah Valley High School. Donchak, now enrolled at Bloomsburg University, was the quarterback last season.
Ben Lawson, a 17-year-old friend of the defendants, testified Monday that Walsh sucker-punched Ramirez and Piekarsky, then kicked the victim in the head while he lay motionless in the street. Defense attorneys characterized the attack as a street fight in which both sides were throwing punches.
Crystal Dillman, Ramirez's 24-year-old fiancee, sobbed on the witness stand as she described rushing to the scene and seeing an unconscious Ramirez "shaking and foaming from the mouth."
Lawson, testifying in a mumble, said he had been drinking malt liquor in the woods with Walsh, Piekarsky, Donchak and other friends a few hours before the attack. He said he drank two 40-ounce bottles and was intoxicated -- a point seized on by the defense.
The prosecution "placed its whole case for murder on a 16-year-old who had consumed 80 ounces of malt liquor, who had a view from a darkened park across a darkened roadway," Frederick Fanelli, Piekarsky's lawyer, told the judge. "Is that it? We're going to hang him on that?"
Two other witnesses testified about seeing parts of the fight from a distance, but Lawson was the only witness to specify the defendants' alleged roles in the attack.
Lawson testified that the group encountered Ramirez and a teenage girl in a park. He said another teen, Brian Scully, goaded the girl, saying, "Isn't it a little late for you to be out?"
Ramirez replied in a threatening manner in Spanish, Scully began yelling racial slurs at Ramirez and a fight ensued, Lawson said.
He said Ramirez was fighting with Donchak when Walsh ran up and punched him in the face. Ramirez fell to the ground and hit his head on the macadam, leaving him unconscious, after which Piekarsky kicked him in the head, Lawson said.
The following day, he said, the group met at Piekarsky's house and hatched a plan to lie to police about what happened.
"We made up a plan that we we're going to tell the cops that nobody kicked him, that there were no racial slurs, there was no booze, and Brian got hit first," Lawson said.
Under cross-examination, Lawson said he had been pressured by FBI agents to recant an initial, incomplete statement he gave to police in favor of a later statement.
Defense attorneys said prosecutors had failed to establish who did what.
Roger Laguna, Walsh's lawyer, said Walsh was guilty of simple assault, nothing more. He "does exactly what Mr. Ramirez was doing. He throws a punch," Laguna said. He said Ramirez was "repeatedly attacking him, and won't quit."
Ramirez, who entered the U.S. illegally about six years ago, worked in a factory and as a farm hand. Dillman, who is white and grew up in Shenandoah, has said Ramirez was often called derogatory names and told to return to his homeland. The couple had two children together.
After the hearing, Dillman said she was pleased that Ramirez's attackers will stand trial.
"It's been a really hard day for me, and I'm just really happy that the charges stuck," she said.
The maximum sentence for third-degree murder in Pennsylvania is 20 to 40 years in prison.
As the hearing got under way, about 40 protesters outside the courthouse in Pottsville began yelling, prompting a defense attorney to complain about the distraction. The protesters, from workers' and immigrants' rights groups, were ordered to keep quiet or be forced to move. The hearing was recessed for several minutes until the protesters quieted down.