The Killing of Vincent Chin

Stephen Lee
8 min readMay 25, 2020

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Vincent Chin

In June 1982, Vincent Chin was killed by a white man who never spent a full day in jail for the crime.

I remember the case from growing up in Michigan, where the case sparked massive outcry among Asian-Americans. I also have looked at the case from my perspective as a former federal prosecutor, and I think that many people misunderstand what actually happened in the Vincent Chin case.

The case is a tragedy, but it is not simply a case about one allegedly racist man, or one allegedly racist judge, or some allegedly racist or misguided jurors. The case should be remembered for how far the law has come since the 1980s and for all the serious mistakes that some well-intentioned lawyers made in handling the case and that compounded the tragedy.

There are seven things that I think you should know about the case.

First, the case initially was handled appropriately but went bad at sentencing.

Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz were charged for murdering Vincent Chin, and both accepted responsibility in some part. Ebens pled guilty to manslaughter, and Nitz pled no contest.

The case took its bad turn at sentencing. The state court judge who handled the case did not hear from Chin’s family, apparently viewed the case as simply a barroom brawl that went bad, and sentenced Ebens and Nitz to no jail time, just probation.

Probation sentences in manslaughter cases are not unheard of, but this case involved much more than a fight at a bar. This is what happened:

· Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American, was out with friends celebrating his upcoming wedding. They ended up at an adult establishment outside Detroit, where a fight broke out between Chin and Ebens, who had been nearby with his son.

· Accounts differ about how the fight broke out, but, taking the evidence from a 1984 trial in the light most favorable to the government, Ebens “began making racial and obscene remarks toward Chin calling him a ‘Chink’ and a ‘Nip’ and making remarks about foreign car imports. It is apparent that Ebens seemed to believe that Chin was Japanese and he was quoted as having made the further comment that ‘it’s because of you little mother fuckers that we’re out of work.’”

· The fight went outside the establishment. Ebens got a baseball bat and chased after Chin, who ran away.

· Ebens and his stepson then got into their car and drove around looking for Chin.

· Ebens and his stepson found Chin in a supermarket parking lot. Nitz grabbed Chin from behind while Ebens approached. Chin broke free, but Ebens hit Chin several times with the bat on the back and head.

· The fight finally ended when police officers working as security guards at the supermarket drew their guns and ordered Ebens to stand down.

· Chin’s brain stopped functioning after an emergency surgery, and he died a few days later.

Second, state prosecutors could not re-do the case because of double jeopardy principles, but federal prosecutors investigated the case and a grand jury did indict Ebens and Nitz on civil-rights violations.

Murder is typically not a federal crime and can be prosecuted under federal law only in connection with another crime and if the government can prove additional elements, such as a defendant’s intent to prohibit a victim from enjoying a place of public accommodation because of the victim’s race.

Prosecutors knew that this was going to be a tough case because of the need to prove those additional elements. In particular, the top federal prosecutor for eastern Michigan was skeptical that the government could prove such elements here. According to reports, U.S. Attorney Leonard F. Gilman wrote in a 1983 letter that he had “serious questions about the success of any criminal prosecution under the federal civil rights statutes.” Gilman reportedly wrote that the fight “does not appear to be any different than many interracial bar altercations.”

Third, a jury did find Ebens guilty of civil-rights violations after a 1984 trial, but the trial was tainted by serious legal errors, some of which even the government could not defend on appeal. In 1986, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Ebens’ conviction because of these errors.

Most significantly, the case fell apart because of evidence that witnesses had coached their testimony in order to make the case appear stronger than it might have been. On May 17, 1983, after the state judge’s sentence and before the federal charges, an attorney who was involved in protesting the probationary sentence met with Chin’s friends to discuss what they should say about what happened. The meeting was taped, and the transcript shows improper coaching that raises serious ethical questions:

Attorney: “We will agree this is the story, this is it. When it’s a federal prosecution, h’m, we’re all going to have to be agreeing on this is what happened … We all remember our different lines, okay. There’s no agreement that that’s fine, just remember your different lines. Chink, foreign car part, big fucker, little fucker, all fuckers, don’t call me a fucker, we all remember our lines, okay?”

The judge who oversaw the 1984 trial prevented Ebens and his stepson from introducing the entirety of these tapes at trial and only allowed defense lawyers to cross-examine witnesses using specific portions. This ruling was just wrong — even the government later conceded that the judge’s ruling was incorrect, and three appellate judges concluded “unanimously” that Ebens’ conviction had to be overturned as a result of this error.

There were even more problems. The government tried to strengthen its case by calling an African-American witness who recalled a man named “Ron” harassing him in 1974 and using a racial slur. This was very problematic, especially because the witness was unable to identify this “Ron” as Ronald Ebens, and the appellate court found that the incident was too vague and too inflammatory to have been admitted at trial. The appellate court also found that prosecutors had made improper, unethical remarks in their closing arguments, including injecting their personal opinions and making improper remarks that highlighted the improper evidentiary rulings.

I was a prosecutor for 11 years and what happened at this trial is very troubling. For a prosecutor, it should be important not just to get the right result, but to get the right result the right way. Prosecutors have a duty to ensure that defendants get a fair trial, and Ronald Ebens did not get a fair trial.

Fourth, a new trial was held in 1987 but was very different from the first trial.

Because of all the publicity surrounding the case, the trial was moved from Detroit to Cincinnati. More evidence about how witnesses may have been coached came in, and Ebens did not testify as he had in the first trial. Ultimately, the jury did not find that the government had proved the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

Fifth, changes in the law would make the same outcome less likely today.

Most significantly, there is much greater appreciation for victims’ rights than there was in the 1980s. The federal government and many states, including Michigan, have enacted laws that give victims more opportunity to be heard at sentencing hearings. If the state judge had heard from Vincent Chin’s mother and fiancée and friends and if he knew that they were in the courtroom when he sentenced Ronald Ebens, the judge might have given a very different sentence.

There are also new federal laws that make it easier for the federal government to bring civil-rights cases against people like Ebens. In particular, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 makes it a federal crime to injure a person because of that person’s race, national origin, or religion, among other things. This would have been easier to prove than the charges that could be brought in the 1980s, and it would have made it easier to get a conviction. Notably, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in 2018 that it had prosecuted more than 300 people for hate-crimes offenses in the preceding 10 years.

Sixth, it is important to remember that the Vincent Chin case has some warnings for advocates.

The attorney who met with Vincent Chin’s friends in May 1983 meant well, but her actions backfired and undercut the credibility of the key witnesses. The prosecutors who handled the first trial meant well, but they should have not tried to use questionable evidence and they should not have made improper remarks in their closing arguments. All of these attorneys meant well, but their actions crossed the line and probably made a bad situation even worse.

Seventh and finally, it is important to put the tragic killing of Vincent Chin into some statistical context.

While people rightfully remember the killing of Vincent Chin as an example of anti-Asian prejudice and violence, such incidents are rare and are rarer than they were before. FBI statistics about hate crimes show that the number of hate crime incidents against Asians and Asian Americans has dropped by more than half since the 1990s.

Moreover, hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans is rare compared to other types of hate crimes. In 2018, there were more than 10 times as many hate-crime incidents against African-Americans and more than 5 times as many hate-crime incidents against Jews or against gay men or lesbians. Moreover, hate crimes in general have gone down slightly over the past two decades, especially when one considers how the population has grown over that same time. (The FBI has not released data yet for 2019 or 2020)

We remember Vincent Chin and we should remember him. And while it is perhaps small consolation, we remember what happened to Vincent Chin in 1982 because what happened to him was rare.

For that, at least, we can be grateful.

Stephen Lee was a federal prosecutor in Chicago from 2008 through 2019 and is now in private practice. He was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the mid-1990s and also created the now-defunct website FootnoteTV in the 2000s.

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Stephen Lee

Lawyer, former federal prosecutor in Chicago (2008–January 2019), former newspaper reporter. Work site at stephenleelaw.com