June 23, 2015

It Happened on June 23rd

Vincent Chin Killed in Highland Park, 1982

Vincent Chin © Star Tribune

Vincent Chin wasn't even Japanese.

He was, however, a young man about to be married, and on June 23, 1982, he was having his bachelor party at a strip club called Fancy Pants in Highland Park, Michigan. Highland Park is a city in Michigan almost completely surrounded by the city of Detroit, except for a small section that touches the city of Hamtramck. Hamtramck, in turn, is also surrounded by Detroit -- except for the section that touches Highland Park.

Also present in the bar that night were Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz. Ebens was a plant superintendant at a Chrysler factory. Nitz had recently been laid off from his auto-industry job. Back in the early 1980's the American auto industry was in big trouble. Not helping matters much was the way the smaller, more economical Japanese cars were becoming more and more popular.

Ebens and Nitz believed Chin was Japanese. He wasn't. Vincent Chin was a Chinese-American, adopted from China, who had lived almost all his life in the Detroit area. He was a draftsman for an automobile supplier.

Words were exchanged between Chin's party and Ebens and Nitz. A witness heard Ebens say, "It's because of you little mother####ers that we're out of work!" A fist fight took place inside the bar, which it appears that the Chin party started. The entire group got thrown out of the bar and parted ways. Then Ebens and Nitz reconsidered, and started looking for Chin.

They caught up with him at McDonald's
After about 20 minutes they found him in a local McDonalds. He tried to escape, but Nitz held him, while Ebens beat him with a baseball bat. He got at least four solid blows in -- at least some of them to the head -- before he was arrested by two off-duty policemen. Chin was taken to the hospital, unconscious, where he lapsed into a coma and died four days later. His last words before he lost consciousness were, "It's not fair."

If the crime hadn't attracted the attention of the advocacy groups, the sentencing certainly did. A number of groups staged demonstrations and wrote letters to newspapers, politicians, and the Department of Justice. Even Lily Chin, the victim's mother, who could barely speak English traveled around the country to raise funds. A journalist named Helen Zia and a lawyer named Liza Cheuk May Chan were particularly instrumental in getting the attention of the Federal prosecution. Ebens and Nitz were soon charged in Federal court.

There were two charges for each: violation of Chin's civil rights and conspiracy. Ebens was found guilty of the first charge, but not of the second. Nitz was acquitted of both. Ebens received a 25-year prison sentence.

On appeal, Ebens's conviction was overturned. It seemed that a prosecution attorney was guilty of coaching witnesses improperly. A new trial was ordered.

Vincent's mother Lily.
This time the venue was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in an effort to give the men a fair trial. Residents of Cincinnati, however, had had almost no exposure to Chinese-Americans. Out of 200 potential jurors, only 19 had ever met one -- and they were dismissed. They also had little inkling of the hostilities that existed between the Detroit car manufacturing community and the Japanese. The jury -- made of 10 Caucasians and two African-Americans -- found Ebens guilty of all charges.

A subsequent civil trial was settled out of court in 1987. Nitz was ordered to pay $50,000 in $30 weekly payments to Chin's estate over the next 10 years. Ebens was to pay $1.5 million at $200 a month for the next two years, and then $200 a month or 25% of his income, whichever was greater. Ebens disposed of his assets shortly before the trial. The suit was renewed 10 years later. As of that date, the total Ebens owed came to $4,683,653.89.

Lily Chin moved back to China in September 1987, hoping to avoid being reminded of her son's death. She died in 2002, after having established a scholarship in Vincent's memory.

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