This week marks the 40th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin in Highland Park. In a racist attack, Chin was beaten to death by two men who blamed the Chinese American man for a loss of automotive jobs.
Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were convicted of manslaughter for Chin’s death but sentenced only to probation.
Roland Hwang is the president of the Asian American civil rights group American Citizens for Justice. He says this case spurred activism for the Asian American community and changes to how convicted criminals are sentenced in Michigan.
“I think that one of the important elements of Vincent Chin case was that there was no presence by the prosecutor’s office at the time of sentencing,” Hwang says. “Back in 1982, the prosecutor’s office didn’t make it a practice to appear and treat the sentencing process as part of the criminal process.”
Since then they’ve met with Wayne County prosecutors who pledged that the assistant prosecutors from that point on would appear at sentencing. Hwang says that levels “the playing field in terms of getting recognition of the victims family’s point of view.”
Michigan Third Circuit Court Judge Charles Kaufman notoriously said of Chin’s killers: “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.” Hwang says at the time of Chin’s case there was no mandatory minimum sentencing.
“Judges had wide latitude, I think, in terms of what the sentence could be,” Hwang says. “And Judge Kauffman gave that ruling of three years’ probation and $3,000 fine for the killing of Vincent Chin, which was what led to the outrage in the Asian American community. After that, and partly, as a result of the Vincent Chin case, the Michigan Supreme Court promulgated a mandatory minimum sentencing guideline, so the judge would have to articulate the reason if he or she was going to set a sentence that was different than the mandatory minimum.”
Hate crimes directed toward Asian Americans since the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic has soared. Hwang says there are groups pushing for change.
“I think that there are people who view the invisibility of the Asian American community in U.S. history classes and part of the K-12 curriculum,” Hwang says. “They are trying to affect change by supporting legislation that would call for enhanced presence for Asian American experience to be in U.S. history textbooks.”
Listen: Roland Hwang on the impact of the Vincent Chin case on the legal system.