Murder of Vincent Chin

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Murder of Vincent Chin
Vincent Chin.jpg
Photo of Vincent Chin
LocationHighland Park, Michigan, U.S.
DateJune 19, 1982
VictimVincent Chin
AssailantsRonald Ebens
Michael Nitz
MotiveResentment over unemployment in auto industry, which they blamed on Japan imports; anti-Asian sentiment; racism
LitigationEbens ordered to pay $1.5 million to Chin's family, Nitz ordered to pay $50,000

Vincent Jen Chin (May 18, 1955 – June 23, 1982) was a Chinese-American draftsman who was beaten to death by two white men, Chrysler plant supervisor Ronald Ebens and his stepson, laid-off autoworker Michael Nitz.

Ebens and Nitz assailed Chin following a brawl that took place at a bar in Highland Park, Michigan, where Chin had been celebrating his bachelor party with friends in advance of his upcoming wedding. They apparently assumed Chin was of Japanese descent, and are alleged to have used racial slurs as they attacked him. Ebens and Nitz blamed him for the success of Japan's auto industry, despite the fact that Chin was of Chinese descent.

At the time, Metro Detroit was a powder keg of racial animosity toward Asian-Americans, specifically as the penetration of Japanese automotive imports in the U.S. domestic market hastened the decline of Detroit’s Big Three. Resentful workers laid the blame for recent layoffs on Japanese competition.

Chin was taken Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, where a nurse told his childhood friend that "he has no chance" and that "his brain was dead." He died of his injuries four days later.[1]

Ebens and Nitz were charged with second-degree murder, but bargained the charges down to manslaughter and pleaded guilty in 1983. They were ordered to pay $3,000 and serve three years' probation, with no jail time. While Ebens and Nitz never denied the brawl, they claimed the fight was not racially motivated and said they did not use racial epithets.[2]

The lenient sentence led to a vocal outcry from Asian-Americans. The president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council said it amounted to a "$3,000 license to kill" Chinese Americans. As a result, the case has been viewed as a critical turning point for Asian-American civil rights engagement and a rallying cry for stronger federal hate crime legislation.[3]

Early life[edit]

Chin was born on May 18, 1955, in Guangdong province, China. He was the only child of Bing Hing "David" Chin (simplified Chinese: 陈炳兴; traditional Chinese: 陳炳興; pinyin: Chén Bǐngxīng; a.k.a. C.W. Hing) and Lily Chin (née Yee) (simplified Chinese: 陈余琼芳; traditional Chinese: 陳余瓊芳; pinyin: Chén Yú Qióngfāng).[4] His father earned the right to bring a Chinese bride into the United States through his service in World War II. After Lily suffered a miscarriage in 1949 and was unable to have children, the couple adopted Vincent from a Chinese orphanage in 1961.[5][6]

Throughout most of the 1960s, Chin grew up in Highland Park. In 1971, after the elderly Hing was mugged, the family moved to Oak Park, Michigan. Vincent Chin graduated from Oak Park High School in 1973, going on to study at Control Data Institute. At the time of his death, he was employed as an industrial draftsman at Efficient Engineering, an automotive supplier, as well as working weekends as a waiter at the former Golden Star restaurant in Ferndale, Michigan.[7][5] He was engaged, and the wedding date set for June 27, 1982.[8]


On the night of June 19, 1982, a fight occurred at the Fancy Pants strip club on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park where Chin was having his bachelor party. The group was thrown out and, after a heated exchange of words, subsequently parted ways. Ebens allegedly instigated the incident by declaring, "It's because of you little motherfuckers that we're out of work!" referring to U.S. auto manufacturing jobs having been lost to Japan, particularly referring to sales of Chrysler's rebadged Mitsubishis as captive imports, assuming the Chinese-American Chin as being Japanese.[9]

Chin taunted Ebens to keep fighting after they were all thrown out.[10] Ebens and Nitz searched the neighborhood for 20 to 30 minutes and even paid another man $20 to help look for Chin,[11] before finding him at a McDonald's restaurant. Chin tried to escape but was held by Nitz while Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Chin with a baseball bat until Chin's head cracked open. A policeman who witnessed the beating said Ebens was swinging the bat like he was swinging "for a home run".[12] When rushed to Henry Ford Hospital, Chin was unconscious and died after four days in a coma on June 23, 1982.[12]

Legal history[edit]

Inaction by government and advocacy groups[edit]

At the time, government officials, politicians, and several prominent law organizations generally dismissed theories of civil rights aspects of the Vincent Chin beating. The local Michigan American Civil Liberties Union and Detroit chapter of the National Lawyers Guild did not see the connection between civil rights and Chin's death.[13]

At first, only a new group called the American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) lent their support for the theory that existing civil rights laws should be applied to Asian Americans. Eventually, the national body of the National Lawyers Guild endorsed their efforts.[14]

State criminal charges[edit]

Ebens was arrested and taken into custody at the scene of the crime by two off-duty police officers who had witnessed the beating.[15] Ebens and Nitz were convicted in a county court for manslaughter by Wayne County Circuit Judge Charles Kaufman, after a plea bargain brought the charges down from second-degree murder. They served no jail time, were given three years' probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs. In a response letter to protests from American Citizens for Justice, Kaufman said, "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."[5]

Federal civil rights charges[edit]

The verdict angered the Asian American community in the Detroit area and around the country.[16] Journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Liza Chan (traditional Chinese: 陳綽薇; simplified Chinese: 陈绰薇; pinyin: Chén Chuòwēi) led the fight for federal charges,[17] which resulted in the men's being accused of two counts of violating Chin's civil rights, under section 245 of title 18 of the United States Code.[18] For these charges, it was not enough that Ebens had injured Chin, but that "a substantial motivating factor for the defendant's actions was Mr. Chin's race, color, or national origin, and because Mr. Chin had been enjoying a place of entertainment which serves the public."[19] Because of possible mitigating factors that could lead to reasonable doubt, such as intoxication leading to the defendant's inability to form the specific intent,[20] the prosecution's proving the evidence of uttered racial slurs was not self-sufficient for conviction.[21] In addition, the defense found Racine Colwell, the witness who overheard the "It's because of you motherfuckers we're out of work" remark, to have received some clemency on a jail sentence for a prostitution charge, which suggested that the government might have tried to cut a deal for her testimony.[22]

The 1984 federal civil rights case against the men found Ebens guilty of the second count and sentenced him to 25 years in prison; Nitz was acquitted of both counts. After an appeal, Ebens' conviction was overturned in 1986—a federal appeals court found an attorney improperly coached prosecution witnesses.[23]

After a retrial that was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, due to the publicity the case had received in Detroit, a jury cleared Ebens of all charges in 1987.[24]

Civil suits[edit]

A civil suit for the unlawful death of Vincent Chin was settled out of court on March 23, 1987. Michael Nitz was ordered to pay $50,000. Ronald Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million, at $200/month for the first two years and 25% of his income or $200/month thereafter, whichever was greater. This represented the projected loss of income from Vincent Chin's engineering position, as well as Lily Chin's loss of Vincent's services as laborer and driver. However, the estate of Vincent Chin would not be allowed to garnish social security, disability, or Ebens' pension from Chrysler, nor could the estate place a lien on Ebens' house.[25]

In November 1989, Ebens reappeared in court for a creditor's hearing, where he detailed his finances and reportedly pledged to make good on his debt to the Chin estate.[26] However, in 1997,[27] the Chin estate was forced to renew the civil suit, as it was allowed to do every ten years.[25] With accrued interest and other charges, the adjusted total became $4,683,653.89.[27] Ebens sought in 2015 to have the resulting lien against his house vacated.[28]


Vincent Chin's mother, Lily Chin

Chin was interred at Detroit's Forest Lawn Cemetery.[29]

In September 1987, Chin's mother, Lily Chin, moved from Oak Park back to her hometown of Guangzhou, China, to avoid being reminded of the tragedy. She returned to the United States for medical treatment in late 2001 and died on June 9, 2002. Prior to her death, Lily Chin had established a scholarship in Vincent's memory, to be administered by American Citizens for Justice.[30]


The attack was considered by many a hate crime,[9] but predated hate crime laws in the United States. Nevertheless, during a 1998 House of Representatives hearing on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1997, Congressman John Conyers, who is an African American, suggested that the problem in making people sufficiently aware of the causes for and injustices of Chin's case was that it was a political "hot potato" that did not get picked up for "political reasons", with respect to the automobile industry.[31]

Chin's case has been cited by some Asian Americans to support the idea that they are seen as not fully citizens or "perpetual foreigners" compared to "real" Americans.[9][16][32] Lily Chin stated: "What kind of law is this? What kind of justice? This happened because my son is Chinese. If two Chinese killed a white person, they must go to jail, maybe for their whole lives... Something is wrong with this country."[33]

In 2010 the city of Ferndale, Michigan erected a legal milestone marker at Woodward and 9-mile commemorating the murder of Chin to ensure that his story is not forgotten.[34]

In media[edit]


In popular culture[edit]


  • In 1983, Lily Chin appeared on The Phil Donahue Show to bring public attention to the case.[48][49]
  • The 2001 book A Day for Vincent Chin and Me by Jacqueline Turner Banks (ISBN 9780618548798) is about a Japanese-American child's efforts to slow down the traffic on a residential street in Kentucky, while his parents form a local protest in support of the Chin case.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Warikoo, Niraj. "Vincent Chin murder 35 years later: History repeating itself?". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 2017-06-23.
  2. ^ "Estate of Vincent Chin seeks millions from his killer". Detroit News. Retrieved 2018-11-14.
  3. ^ "35 Years After Vincent Chin's Murder, How Has America Changed?". Asia Society. Retrieved 2018-11-14.
  4. ^ "透视美国华人女性的百年记忆". Epoch Times (in Chinese). June 3, 2016. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Zia, Helen (May 18, 2001). Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 58–64. ISBN 9780374527365. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  6. ^ Lee, Jonathan H. X. (November 12, 2015). Chinese Americans: The History and Culture of a People: The History and Culture of a People. ABC-CLIO. p. 27. ISBN 9781610695503. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  7. ^ Darden, Joe T.; Thomas, Richard W. (March 1, 2013). Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide. MSU Press. p. 251. ISBN 9781609173524. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  8. ^ Lee, Jonathan H. X.; Nadeau, Kathleen M. (December 21, 2010). Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife. ABC-CLIO. p. 235. ISBN 9780313350672. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c Wei, William (2002-06-14). "An American Hate Crime: The Murder of Vincent Chin". Southern Poverty Law Center. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-14.
  10. ^ "Ronald Ebens, the Man Who Killed Vincent Chin, Apologizes 30 Years Later". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  11. ^ Bedi, Sheila (2003). "The Constructed Identities of Asian and African Americans: A Story of Two Races and the Criminal Justice System. Havard Blackletter Law Journal. 19, 181–199.
  12. ^ a b Hung, Louise. "35 years after Vincent Chin's brutal murder, nothing has changed". Global Comment. Retrieved August 9, 2017.
  13. ^ Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide.
  14. ^ Wu, Jean Yu-Wen Shen; Chen, Thomas (2010-03-08). Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader. ISBN 9780813549330.
  15. ^ Weingarten, Paul (July 31, 1983). "Deadly Encounter". Chicago Tribune.
  16. ^ a b C.N. Le. "Asian-Nation: Anti-Asian Racism". Asian-Nation. Retrieved 2007-03-14.
  17. ^ Ni, Ching-Ching (July 25, 2010). "Irvin R. Lai dies at 83; Chinese American community leader in Los Angeles". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 17, 2016.
  18. ^ "Fourteenth Amendment. State Action. Seventh Circuit Recognizes a Broader State Duty to Act. Ross v. United States, 910 F.2d 1422 (7th Cir. 1990)". Harvard Law Review. 104 (5): 1147–1153. March 1991. doi:10.2307/1341678. ISSN 0017-811X. JSTOR 1341678.
  19. ^ Defendant's Requested Jury Instruction No. 30, U.S. v. Ebens.
  20. ^ Defendant's Requested Jury Instruction No. 18, U.S. v. Ebens.
  21. ^ Defendant's Requested Jury Instruction No. 31, U.S. v. Ebens.
  22. ^ U.S. vs. Ebens transcript, Tuesday, June 19, 1984, pp. 209–211.
  23. ^ US. v. Ebens, 800 F.2d 1422 (U.S. App. 6th Cir. 1986).
  24. ^ US. v. Ebens, 654 F. Supp. 144 (E.D. Mich. 1987).
  25. ^ a b Henry Yee and the Estate of Vincent Chin (deceased) vs. Ronald Ebens, Michael Nitz, and Fancy Pants lounge, 83-309788 CZ (Mich 3rd Cir 1983).
  26. ^ Finkelstein, Jim (November 30, 1989). "The Man Convicted In Chin Case Pledges To Make Good On Debt". Detroit Free Press. p. 1B.
  27. ^ a b Paul Dufault, Temporary Person Representative of the Estate of Vincent Jen Chin, Deceased, vs. Ronald M. Ebens, 97-727321-CZ (Mich 3rd Cir 1997).
  28. ^ Guillermo, Emil; Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa (December 11, 2015). "Man Charged With Vincent Chin's Death Seeks Lien Removed, Still Owes Millions". NBC News. Retrieved July 7, 2016.
  29. ^ "30 years later, Vincent Chin's family awaits justice in fatal beating". The Detroit News. June 21, 2012. Archived from the original on February 2, 2014.
  30. ^ "OCA Mourns Death of Lily Chin". Organization of Chinese Americans. Retrieved 2007-03-14.
  31. ^ United States House of Representatives. "Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1997. Hearing". U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 2007-03-14.
  32. ^ Frank H. Wu. "Asian Americans and the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-06-14.
  33. ^ Iris Chang. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. Viking, 2003. 0-670-03123-2. p. 320.
  34. ^ "Plaque commemorating Vincent Chin case erected in Ferndale > Washtenaw County Legal News". Retrieved 2019-11-25.
  35. ^ "Multicultural Studies: Who Killed Vincent Chin?". Filmakers Library. Archived from the original on October 20, 2006. Retrieved March 14, 2007.
  36. ^ "Vincent Who? (2009)". IMDb. April 4, 2009. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  37. ^ Video on YouTube
  38. ^ Zia, p. 81.
  39. ^ "Race and the Performing Arts". NPR Morning Edition. July 20, 1998.
  40. ^ "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain". National Asian American Theater Festival. Archived from the original on August 14, 2007. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  41. ^ Patrin, Nate (June 5, 2007). "Blue Scholars: Bayani Album Review". Pitchfork. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  42. ^ Gill, Sean (July 11, 2014). "Film Review: COLLISION COURSE (1989, Lewis Teague)". Junta Juleil's Culture Shock. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  43. ^ "The Dead Milkmen – Anthropology Days". Genius. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
  44. ^ Video on YouTube
  45. ^ UC Hastings College of the Law, The Killing of Vincent Chin, January 14, 2014.
  46. ^ Thien, Madeleine (September 2, 2016). "The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies review – what does it mean to be Chinese-American?". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 November 2018.
  47. ^ Lewis, Michelle (April 11, 2017). "WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A LIST OF FURTHER POSSIBILITIES: A review of Chen Chen's debut poetry…". Medium. Retrieved May 21, 2019.
  48. ^ Zia, p. 73.
  49. ^ "American Citizens for Justice Records: 1983-2004". Bentley Historical Library. University of Michigan. Retrieved June 21, 2018. The Vincent Chin Case and Aftermath series (0.5 linear feet, 1983-1989) contains files relating to the Vincent Chin incident and legal case, including clippings and articles, ACJ's involvement with the case (court watch documents, petitions, remembrance services), as well as public reaction, including response letters from viewers of a Phil Donahue show that covered the Chin case in 1983.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]