The Case of Vincent Chin
The murder of Vincent Chin has sparked civil right movement among the Asian American community, not only because of the ethno-centric nature of his killing, but also because of the moderate initial sentencing of his killers. On June 19, 1982, in Detroit, Michigan, Vincent Jen Chin was severely beaten with blows of a baseball bat (including some to the head) dealt by Ronald Ebens, a plant superintendent for Chrysler, while being held down by Michael Nitz, Ebens’ stepson. The murder was traced back to the fact that due to the rise of Japanese automakers in the market, the Detroit auto industry was suffering, resulting in major lay-offs. Earlier that night, the men had already been involved in a scuffle in a strip club, and before they parted ways, Ebsen was quoted as blaming Chin in part for the lay-offs, despite the fact that Chin was of Chinese heritage, not Japanese. Afterwards, Ebsen and Nitz searched around for Chin and found him at a McDonald’s, as Chin tried to escape, that was when they beat him. Chin slipped into a coma, brain dead, and died 4 days later when permission was granted to pull the plug.
It was not only the racial discriminatory undertones of the actual murder that sparked indignation from the Asian American community, but also the nature of the sentencing of the two men. Despite that two police officers had witnessed the beating and brought them in and Ebsen and Nitz were first convicted of manslaughter in a county court, the charges were brought down to just second-degree murder by way of a plea bargain. Neither of the two men actually received any jail time from this ruling, and were simply fined and given 3 years probation.
This undoubtedly lenient sentencing caused great indignation among the Asian American community, and they even rallied up against the judge who made the ruling. Due to the public pressure from Asian organizations, eventually, federal charges were submitted against the two men, and they were subsequently put on trial for two counts of civil rights violations against Chin. For these charges to fully take effect, it needed to be established that besides hurting Chin, the men’s motivations for doing so were due to racial reasons. However, reasonable doubt was cast by the fact that the men were intoxicated at the time and the racial slurs may have just been caused by this and the fact that the men might not have had those specific intents in mind when they beat Chin. Even the racially-charge quote attributed to Ebens was discredited by the accusation that prosecution struck a deal with the witness. In 1984, the federal civil rights case acquitted Nitz but convicted Ebens of the 2nd count of civil rights violation (sentencing him to 25 years in prison), the conviction was again overturned in 1986 over a legal technicality, witness tampering, after an appeal was filed at a federal appeals court. A retrial was held a year later, in which a jury acquitted Ebens.
The documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”, contrasts the grief and outrage of the people who were calling for justice for Vincent Chin’s death with the opinions of those who supported Ebsen and Nitz (family, friends, and the men themselves), some of who blamed the media for perpetuating the idea that the beating was a hate crime and that the Asian Americans were merely trying to promote some type of agenda.
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