Hate crime finally taken for what it is

Rosario Lucero did one of the most difficult things a mother could do: She went to the place where her son was killed.

"I feel pain knowing that my son's life ended here," she said. "But there is a God. May God forgive them, and may my son forgive them, too."

Lucero was referring to the group of young men who went out one night in November 2008 with no other intention than to "beat up Mexicans," just for fun. Unfortunately, Marcelo Lucero crossed their path. He was Ecuadorean, not Mexican, but to racists it's ethnicity, not country of origin, that matters. Lucero was brutally beaten and stabbed, leaving a 370-foot trail of blood before collapsing. He died shortly after.

Hate crimes have been on the rise for some time now, and it's possible that finally our justice system is sending the message that they will not be tolerated. After a highly charged trial in New York's Suffolk County, a jury found 19-year-old Jeffrey Conroy guilty of manslaughter as a hate crime, first-degree gang assault and fourth-degree conspiracy -- not exactly the verdict prosecutors were hoping for.

Conroy was one of seven teenagers charged with various crimes related to Lucero's death, but Conroy was the one who inflicted the final stab wound that took the man's life. He was acquitted of the more serious charge of second-degree murder. This means he will face only eight to 25 years behind bars.

Ironically, as that trial ended, another began, also in New York, against two men also charged with beating an Ecuadorean immigrant to death. It was just one month after Lucero was killed that Jose Sucuzhanay had the unfortunate fate of crossing the path of Hakim Scott and Keith Phoenix.

The two yelled anti-Latino and anti-gay slurs at the man, whom they saw walking down the street on the arm of another. They got out of their vehicle, according to the prosecution, smashed a beer bottle over Sucuzhanay's head and continued to beat him with a metal baseball bat. Scott and Phoenix are charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime.

These were not just isolated incidents. After the first arrests were made in the Lucero case, several other Latino immigrants came out to denounce violence against them based on their race. Not only was a pattern of intolerance and racism detected in parts of New York and New Jersey, but also one of impunity. Police simply were not taking reports of racially motivated attacks seriously, and victims of hate crimes were afraid to come forward.

Thanks to the recent passage of new hate-crime laws, the family of Luis Ramirez in nearby Shenandoah, Pa., is hoping justice will finally be served in his murder.

The Mexican immigrant was beaten to death by four white high-school athletes on July 12, 2008. The two young men who went to trial were found guilty of simple assault by an all-white jury. Immigrant and civil-rights activists, not to mention his family and friends, were indignant about the verdict and lobbied for hate-crime charges to be filed against them.

Fortunately, federal prosecutors recognized the injustice served in this case and not only charged Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky, now 20 and 18 years old, with hate crimes, but also charged three former Shenandoah police officers with obstructing the investigation.

A federal trial against the former cops is scheduled to begin sometime in May, and against Donchak and Piekarsky in early October.

Unfortunately, too many people die senseless deaths that stem from anger and bigotry. Justice must be served in all cases, but frankly, that does not bring back a loved one. We also should be working harder at educating our society to be more inclusive, tolerant and compassionate. No one deserves to die because of the color of his or her skin or his or her lifestyle choices.