I’ve got my call into Ronald Madis Ebens. I’ve found him, heard his voice, and left my message on his answering machine. And when he calls me back, maybe he’ll say something to make us all feel better.
I’m not holding my breath.
It will be 29 years on June 19th. On that day in 1982, Ebens, a then 42-year-old white Chrysler autoworker, along side with his stepson accomplice Michael Nitz, then 23, took a baseball bat and bludgeoned Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, to death on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit.
While people always seem to ask about Vincent Chin, I prefer to dwell on the perps, Ebens and Nitz.
In a case too easily forgotten by the mainstream, the two men don’t deserve to be beneficiaries of our collective memory loss.
How can they? The facts are indisputable. Some witnesses say Nitz held down Chin. Some say he didn’t. Everyone says he was there and did nothing to stop Ebens, who ferociously struck and beat Chin repeatedly, with two savage blows to the head leaving Chin unconscious.
For their admitted role in Chin’s death, here’s the amount of time Ebens and Nitz served for the crime they committed: zero.
Ebens is now 71. His accomplice Nitz is 52. They are the only real beneficiaries of the injustice that is the Chin case.
After 29 years, it’s tempting to say, Vincent Chin, old hat, old hate. Move on.
Yet recently I sat in on a re-telling of the Chin story and noticed how the recounting of facts is still breathtakingly horrific. From the altercation in the Fancy Pants Strip Club, to Ebens’ and Nitz’s search and destroy mission.
And then comes the punchline.
Ebens and Nitz were allowed to plea bargain in a Michigan court to escape mandatory jail time for second degree murder. Ebens pleaded guilty; Nitz pleaded nolo contendere. Both men got this sentence: three years’ probation, a $3,000 fine, and $780 in court costs.
It never fails to make a crowd gasp in disbelief.
The crowd I was in happened to be a diverse audience of ethnically aware educators. Twenty-nine years later, and there’s a new generation waiting to be given the reality check that is the Chin story. In America, it’s still very possible to engage in a racially motivated crime–the murder of an Asian American–and get away with it.
While three-strike felons are doing life in California for non-violent crimes, Ebens, who has admitted to his role in the killing of Chin, is living a life in the sunshine. I actually found him far from the Detroit area and gave him a call this week. He’s remarried and lives in a state with a huge Asian American population.
He’s lucky he’s generally far less remembered than Vincent Chin himself.
But here’s how justice played out for Ebens. By plea bargaining in the original case, his sentencing hearing was seen as little more than a formality. No one representing Chin was notified or even showed up. So no one could object when the judge unexpectedly granted both Ebens and Nitz 3 years’ probation.
The light sentence set off such a response that a second trial, on civil rights charges in federal district court, was inevitable. But it was an angry, strident affair with a conclusion to match. Nitz was acquitted, but Ebens was convicted to 25 years in prison.
Ebens always called the federal trial a “frame-up” and appealed for a new trial to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court saw the failure to change venues and the coaching of witnesses by a community activist as reason enough for a new trial.
At that point, the new case was put in Cincinnati, Ohio, far removed from Detroit, its media, the auto industry, and five years after the night of the attack. It was advantage Ebens, who on May 2, 1987 was found not guilty on the federal civil rights charges.
Wrote the Associated Press, Ebens “broke into tears at the verdict.”
“I’m still very sorry about the death that occurred, but I’m very relieved it is over after four years,” he said back then.
When I placed a call to him this week, I didn’t think he’d want to wait for the 30th anniversary.
After 29 years, the case is still so unsettling. I figured Ebens’ perspective could be useful in understanding how the justice system worked fine for someone like him, but not for Vincent Chin.