Last week, in the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, an all-white jury acquitted defendants Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17, of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and ethnic intimidation in the death of Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez last July. “Ethnic intimidation” is Pennsylvania’s legal term for “hate crime.” Both teens, however, were convicted of simple assault.  The verdict has left many feeling that the two teens got away with murder.

Last summer, Ramirez, the 25 year-old father of two, was walking down the street with his girlfriend when he encountered the group of teens who had been drinking earlier in the night. Prosecutors said the teens “baited Ramirez into a fight with racial epithets and provoked an exchange of punches and kicks that ended with Ramirez convulsing in the street, foaming at the mouth.” According to one affidavit, one teen in the group yelled to Ramirez’s girlfriend, “Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here!” Another witness, a retired police officer, overheard the teens screaming at Ramirez’s girlfriend as they ran, “Tell your effin Mexican friends [to] get the eff out of Shenandoah or you’re gonna be laying effin next to him.”  Ramirez died two days later in the hospital.

The jury foreman Eric Maclin said himself that he believes some of the jurors were racist.  According to him, many jury members had their mind made up from the start:

Jury foreman Eric Maclin said he believed the teens were guilty of those serious charges, but that the evidence just was not there to convict them. He said he feels for the family of Luis Ramirez. “I think they have to go on with the knowledge that these two boys got away with a horrible crime,” he said.

Eileen Burke, a former Philadelphia police officer and a witness to the fight, was shocked:

“He had his head, his skull basically taken off to relieve the pressure on the brain and he ends up dying. I am surprised about simple assault, very surprised…I feel bad because the prosecution didn’t do their job to put across what I saw that night… How did the ethnic intimidation go? Because the first thing that got me out of my room was the “f” word the “Spic” word, you know what I mean?”

The verdict also left advocates, like Gladys Limon of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), reeling about the message unpunished hate crimes sends to everyone else:

The jurors here [are] sending the message that you can brutally beat a person, without regard to their life, and get away with it, continue with your life uninterrupted. In this case, the message is that a person who may not be popular in society based on their national origin or certain characteristic has less value in our society.

Hate crimes have been on the rise, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group which tracks hate. The SPLC estimated that “the number of hate groups in the country rose to 888 in 2007, up from 844 in 2006 and 602 in 2000.” The SPLC also points out that the national immigration debate is driving up the number of hate groups in the country and fueling attacks against Hispanics.

As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) points out, the beating of Luis Ramirez didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was the beating and eventual death of an Ecuadorian immigrant in New York last year-and sadly, countless others.  MALDEF’s interim president and general counsel, Henry Solano, acknowledges the importance of the “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention,” (Hate Crimes Act) which passed in the House this week, but still highlights the need for full prosecutions of hate crimes:

In the week when Congress passed the Hate Crimes Act, this verdict underscores the importance of the passage of this Act. It is time for the Department of Justice to step in and bring justice to the Ramirez family and send a strong message that violence targeting immigrants will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The point remains, however, that the hateful rhetoric used in the immigration debate, while not responsible for hate crimes committed by others, certainly doesn’t lay the groundwork for sensible discussions on important issues like immigration. Until perpetrators of hate crimes are acknowledged and convicted, we all lose in the fight for human rights.