Plaque commemorating Vincent Chin case erected in Ferndale

By John Minnis

Legal News

There never will be justice for Vincent Chin, but a Michigan Legal Milestone plaque on Woodward at Nine Mile will make sure he is never forgotten.

In the early 1980s, the American economy was in a recession, and American automakers were especially hard hit. Japanese imports were making inroads into the American market. "It's because of you ... that we're out of work," Chin's attackers said at the time.

On that fateful day, June 27, 1982, Chin, 27, attended a bachelor party in his honor at the Fancy Pants strip club on Woodward in Highland Park. During the gathering, a Chrysler plant superintendent, Ronald Ebens, and his stepson, Michael Nitz, a laid-off Chrysler worker, accosted Chin and his friends.

Mistaking Chin for Japanese, Ebens instigated an altercation. Both parties were ejected from the strip club, where the altercation escalated in the parking lot before Chin and his friends left the area. For half an hour afterwards, Ebens and Nitz drove around looking for Chin. They found Chin and a friend in a nearby McDonald's restaurant.

While his stepson held Chin, Ebens struck the victim at least four times with a baseball bat, including blows to the head. As Chin slipped into a coma, he whispered to his friend, "It's not fair."

He died four days later having never regained consciousness.

Ebens and Nitz were arrested at the scene by two off-duty Highland Park police officers who witnessed the beating. The men were charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a plea bargain agreement.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman sentenced the men to three years probation and a $3,000 fine and $780 in court costs.

In response to outrage from the Asian-Pacific American community, Kaufman wrote, "These weren't the kind of men you send to jail. ... You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal."

At the time, Chin's mother, Lily Chin, stated, "What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? ... Something is wrong with this country."

"From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry" -- the State Bar of Michigan's 34th Michigan Legal Milestone bronze plaque commemorating the rise of the Asian American civil rights movement that followed the 1982 beating death of Vincent Chin and the travesty of justice that ensued --was unveiled Wednesday, Dec. 22, in Woodward median at Nine Mile in Ferndale near where Vincent Chin worked part time at Chinese restaurant, the Golden Star, now the Post Bar.

Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority, welcomed the many media representatives to Post Bar.

"Vincent Chin is virtually unknown to the masses," she said, "but that will change today."

Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey noted that following Judge Kaufman's travesty of justice in the Chin case, the Golden Star was where attorneys and leaders of the Asian-Pacific American met to discuss strategy for getting the lenient sentence replaced with a sentence more appropriate to the crime.

"America likes to view itself as a beacon for the world to join the great melting pot," he said, "but for many (native Americans, African-, Irish- and, now, Muslim-Americans) that is not the case. Equal justice in America is not a given."

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, editor of Asian American Village at IMDiversity.com, outreach coordinator of the Ann Arbor Chinese Center of Michigan and advisory board member of the American Citizens for Justice, said that the only thing she knew about Detroit when she moved here a little more than 20 years ago was that "this is where they killed Vincent Chin. My father urged me to sell my Toyota."

She said the Vincent Chin story does not end with Kaufman's sentencing but with "what happened next."

Following Kaufman's sentencing, the Asian-Pacific American community formed the American Citizens for Justice in 1983 to seek justice in the Vincent Chin case.

After failing to force Judge Kaufman to resentence Ebens and Nitz, which was upheld on the Fifth Amendment protection against double jeopardy, the ACJ then sought charges in federal court for violation of Chin's civil rights.

Ebens was found guilty of the federal charges, but Nitz was acquitted.

However, Ebens's conviction was overturned on appeal. Due to the publicity of the case in Detroit, Ebens was retried in Cincinnati, where a jury cleared him of all charges.

"It was at that moment the Asian-Pacific community came together," she said, "and the Asian-Pacific American civil rights movement was born."

Agitation by the Asian-Pacific community led to laws that would prevent such travesties of justice in the future.

Otherwise, "we would have been left with Mrs. Chin's words, 'What kind of justice is this?'" Wang said.

Vincent Chin's father had earned the right to bring his family to the United States because of his service during World War II.

In 1987, disgusted with the American legal system, Lily Chin moved back to China.

Roland Hwang, Michigan assistant attorney general, advisory board member and past president of American Citizens for Justice, vice-chair of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Committee and past president of the Michigan Asian Pacific American Bar Association, was among those who met at the Golden Star restaurant following Kaufman's sentencing.

"Dozens of us met right here," he said. "We wanted an appeal."

At the time, he said, Michigan law had no minimum sentencing guidelines or victim's impact statements. "Things we take for granted today," he said.

"The impact of this case touched some many people beyond the Asian-American community," he said.

Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, noted that the state bar has presented dozens of Legal Milestones. Some point to pride; some "force us to look at injustice; some do both."

Stating how hard it was to get the Vincent Chin story condensed to fit on a bronze plaque, Welch then read the stirring words to all those present.

She pointed out that placing the Legal Milestone plaque at the high-traffic location at the Nine Mile and Woodward crosswalk will provide many people the serendipitous opportunity to learn about the Vincent Chin story.

"Just by happenstance," she said, "they will encounter the story of Vincent Chin."

Jeffrey Paulsen, chairman of the State Bar's Standing Committee on Law Related Education and Public Outreach, which oversees the Legal Milestone program, was pleased with the big media turnout at the Vincent Chin Milestone unveiling.

"People are very interested," he said. "I'm pleased for Ferndale. I'm pleased for the State Bar. All these programs are a win-win.

"They educate people on the law and they promote the function of the State Bar."

Published: Thu, Jan 6, 2011

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