Twelve Angry White People: Jury Nullification 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 sentenced in April to two life terms, without possibility of parole after he pled no contest to killing two teens the previous year. 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 and a $25,000 fine for aggravated assault.

* Mark P. Wilner, 40, of Mahanoy City, in June was found guilty of simple assault after a street fight that led to injuries to the victim who, according to court testimony, had begun the fight by punching a woman, causing her to fall to the ground. Wilner, who apparently initially tried to avoid confrontation, could be sentenced, June 29, to one to two years in state prison.

* However, the life of Luis Eduardo Ramirez-Zavalo, 25, an illegal Mexican immigrant who lived and worked in Shenandoah before dying in June 2008 after a beating by a gang of about a half-dozen drunken Shenandoah Valley High School football players is worth no more than 23 months in a county jail for his assailants.

Judge William E. Baldwin sentenced Brandon J. Piekarsky, 17, Shenandoah Heights, to six to 23 months, and Derrick M. Donchak, 19, Shenandoah, 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; Baldwin also sentenced Donchak 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. 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. Court testimony revealed that the teens had apparently baited Ramirez into the fight.

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 others are likely to spend more time in confinement than Piekarsky and Donchak. Brian Scully, 18, Shenandoah, charged as a juvenile, 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. Judge Baldwin had said that Scully “was not only involved [in the assault] he was the instigator.” Scully admitted he tried to kick Ramirez in the head, missed, and kicked him in the shoulder.

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. Walsh, who like Scully had expressed remorse for his actions, testified that after he had punched Ramirez who fell and hit his head on the street, Piekarsky kicked him in the head. Medical testimony concluded that “the combined effects from these injuries” caused the death of Ramirez. Walsh 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, which published more than 160 articles about the beating, subsequent events, and the trial, 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, July 12, 2008, checked Latino witnesses for weapons rather than pursue the White attackers. Schuylkill County detectives filed arrest papers about two weeks after the fight; the district attorney filed court charges on Sept. 30, 2008. Based upon court 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. The Shenandoah police, originally the primary investigative agency, did not make any arrests; on July 25, about two weeks after the assault, criminal complaints were filed by the Schuylkill County detectives in the office of the District Attorney. The Department of Justice told the Republican-Herald that there was “an open investigation” into the assault, and was “working cooperatively with state authorities on the matter and monitoring the state’s prosecution.” 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 was a “street brawl,” and those who believe the gang got away with murder, seem to just want the spotlight to shine on other towns and 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. Although civil rights prosecutions diminished in some subsequent administrations, the Department of Justice has again resumed the priorities established during the 1960s.

Shenandoah is a community of about 5,600, located in the anthracite coal region, about 100 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, became 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.

* 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 news staff of the Pottsville Republican-Herald.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on June 22nd, 2009 at 1:50pm #

    I lived my early life amidst the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. My grandfathers had come to the region from Poland to work in the mines. I have great admiration for many who have worked so hard.

    Sadly, it is true that it is an area that now has a deeply held and wide-spread prejudice against ‘outsiders’. Whenever I visit the area, I am saddened by some of the things I see. This is an issue in many regions of the US.

  2. David said on June 23rd, 2009 at 8:51am #


    Thanks for the excellent piece. This is the price being paid for two plus generations of people being raised by television and, more recently, video games.


    The fear of the outsider is not just an issue in many regions of the US. It exists in urban and suburban areas as well. Any place that has and continues to suffer economic and social stress puts up the walls in self defense, just the opposite of what should be done.

    Stress and complexity drive people to make their world ever smaller so that it can be understood. Sad, isn’t it.

  3. rosemarie jackowski said on June 24th, 2009 at 8:00am #

    David…I agree. I now live in New England where outsiders are called “flatlanders” unless they have been here for generations.