Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Luis Ramirez case: Ripping open the truth about hate crimes in small-town America

-- by Dave

Many of us celebrated when the Justice Department announced it had indicted three police officers for obstructing justice in the case of the bias-crime murder of a Latino named Luis Ramirez in the rural town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

But as Maegan La Mamita Mala at Vivir Latino observes (be sure to read the whole post):

Civil rights and the more expansive human rights matter little when you’re dead. So longer sentences make us feel better, like all the marching, chanting, petition signing, mouse clicking and text messaging meant something. Whatever the outcome of the Federal case, no one will go to jail for taking Luis Ramirez from his children and this world. So while we need to support this case, it has to be done in a larger context. Whatever the outcome of the Federal case, it still will be dangerous to be a Latino in the United States.

This reality is underscored by the details as they emerge in the Ramirez case. Indeed, the conditions that gave rise to the attempt to cover up the bias crime by local officers are present in nearly every small rural town in America.

Consider, for instance, what the local prosecutor saw going on with the case as he handled it:

The Pennsylvania prosecutor who failed to secure felony convictions against two teens in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant says he thought his case was "compromised" from the start.

Like many residents in the small, tight-knit eastern Pennsylvanian community of Shenandoah, Schuylkill County District Attorney James Goodman knew that an officer investigating the death of Luis Ramirez was in a relationship with the mother of one the teens involved.

Goodman also believed the investigation and evidence hadn't been handled as it should have been.

"They didn't interview the perpetrators, the boys. In fact, not only did they not interview them, they picked them up, gave them rides, helped them concoct stories, brought them back and told the boys what to say," Goodman told CNN.

The son of Shenandoah Police Lt. William Moyer also played on the same football team as the teens who were involved in the July 2008 street brawl, according to court documents.

"It's clear they were trying to help these boys out, for whatever reason -- they were football players, these police officers were trying to help these boys out and limit their involvement in the death of Luis Ramirez."

Likewise with the local eyewitnesses to the crime:\

Residents say they witnessed or long suspected the culture of corruption, nepotism and coercion among the town's law enforcement described by federal prosecutors in indictments and at hearings this week. The police chief and his second-in-command also face federal charges of extorting payments from illegal gambling operations.

Eileen Burke, a former Philadelphia police officer who moved back to her native Shenandoah, said she saw its bleakest example firsthand. After the beating, Ramirez lay about 15 feet in front of her house at Vine and Lloyd streets. From her porch Thursday, she pointed to a manhole cover in the middle of the street where she kneeled over him as he convulsed on July 12, 2008.

A nearby utility pole once had "RIP" scrawled onto it, but it has since been painted over. Now there is only a faint orange blob to mark the spot.

"I knew there was a cover-up," Burke said. "I knew."

Police from other municipalities and state police responded to the scene before a single Shenandoah police officer arrived, she said.

"I sat on my porch that night, from when it happened at approximately 11:15, until 2:30 in the morning," Burke said. "No one came to me to ask what I saw, what I did."

It wasn't until 10 days later that Shenandoah police dropped off a paper on which she was asked to write out a witness statement, Burke said. In the months after, she said she watched the teens walk around town as if nothing wrong had happened. People coddled and protected them, she said, because they were star athletes in a town where Blue Devils football is the primary preoccupation and where the newest immigrants, Latinos who come to work on farms or in factories, are often seen as aloof and unwelcome.

"They made them heroes," Burke said. " 'Free the three.' They wanted to make shirts up and everything, because it was our illustrious football team."

When she walked around town, some people called her a "Mexican lover" or told her to "go see a Mexican," Burke said.

"I had people who said, 'Why didn't you just close the curtains?' "

Having worked for many years in small rural communities, I can attest that this kind of corruption is common, especially when it comes to crimes against people who are considered "outsiders".

Indeed, this very problem is the major subject of my 2003 book, Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America, which focused on another hate crime in a small rural town in which the outcome was reversed, similarly revealing the nature of what goes on in hundreds if not thousands of small towns across the country: hate crimes are ignored, covered up, and go unprosecuted at a disturbing rate in small towns.

One Justice Department study found that the actual occurrence of bias crimes is about fourfold what are actually recorded in FBI statistics, for a variety of factors -- one being that the victims themselves, fearful of further persecution or public exposure, often refuse to press charges or file a complaint. Gays and lesbians and Latinos are particularly unlikely to act because of such fears, and it becomes especially acute in rural areas.

Compounding this, of course, is the reality that local law enforcement is likely to be either ignorant and poorly trained in the nuances of identifying and investigating bias crimes, or as in the Shenandoah case, they are actively hostile to a bias-crime prosecution, and are thus prone to victimizing the victims a second time (as we saw in Ocean Shores).

All the more reason that we should be glad we finally passed a federal bias-crime law.

Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.