Two filmmakers spent 6 years studying Vincent Chin’s murder – Here’s why it’s so hard to prove a hate crime

Vincent Chin

The recent news of Robert Aaron Long’s plea deal in the murder of four Asian spa workers in Cherokee County, Georgia is a bittersweet triumph. He was given four life sentences without the possibility of parole, but the Cherokee County District Attorney explicitly stated, “Your honor, in discussing this case with Mr. Burns, the defense’s position is that this was not any type of hate crime,” saying that the defense found no racial bias in the case. The FBI came to the same conclusion. With the four remaining murders still to be tried in Fulton County, the District Attorney there stated she intends to continue to pursue the case as a hate crime, keeping the domestic terrorism charges, and seek the death penalty. This is yet another example of the difficulties of proving racial bias in a court of law, especially when it comes to Asian Americans.

When Robert Aaron Long killed eight people in Atlanta back in March, the Asian American community could see this for what it was: a hate crime. Six of the victims were Asian women who worked at spas. This was not a coincidence. Their race and occupation made them targets. Asian women are fetishized in our culture, which is linked to the stereotype of seeing them as sex workers, a relic from colonialism and imperialism, multiple American wars in Asia, and the portrayal of Asian women in Hollywood films and television. The killer, however, claimed that this had nothing to do with race. He is “deeply religious,” struggles with a “sex addiction” and felt he needed to kill these women to remove the temptation they presented. With the news of Long’s plea deal came the revelation that he did in fact frequent these spas. If this is true, it would follow, then, that he either chose these Asian spas based off the stereotype that Asian spas are fronts for sex work, or that he chose Asian spas specifically because he had an Asian fetish. It seems highly questionable that he frequented multiple spas to solicit sex acts, and it was only a coincidence that they were all explicitly staffed by Asian workers. We are unaware of any hard evidence making this connection. For now, we are left to sift through circumstantial evidence to determine what was in his head that day. We are all too familiar with such a journey.

We have spent the last six years of our lives researching the murder of Vincent Chin and would like to share some of the insights we’ve gained to aid discussions on the Atlanta spa shootings. Vincent and his family never received justice. The justice system not only failed to hold the murderers accountable, but also failed to illuminate the racial bias in the case. While Long is being held accountable for the murders, it seems the justice system may once again fall short in putting racism on trial. Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng and their families must not endure the same fate.  

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Our research journey began with the quintessential documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” We are both ashamed to admit that we knew nothing of Vincent Chin until we saw the film. Nothing about the murder or the Asian American civil rights movement that it sparked. This is a tremendously important part of our history, and yet it wasn’t until college before we heard anything about it.

For those also in the dark, Vincent and his friends were celebrating his bachelor party at a strip club in 1982 when two out-of-work autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, mistook him for Japanese during a time of high anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit. A fight broke out at the club, which spilled out onto the streets. The autoworkers tracked down Vincent and beat him to death with a baseball bat. The killers were apprehended in the act, so there was no question of who murdered Vincent, only a question of what crime to charge the killers. The prosecutor ended up cutting a deal with the assailants, and they pleaded to manslaughter. Without the prosecutor at the sentencing, which was the norm at the time, there was no one to advocate for the victim, and the killers only received three years probation and a $3,780 fine. It was a slap on the wrist for murder. Judge Kaufman, the man who handed down that sentence, would later comment in defense of his decision, “You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.” From this statement, he seemed to view the killers as the victims, and Vincent as an afterthought. This case was filled with one insult after another, from the crime itself, to the arrest, to the “trial” or lack thereof and the disgraceful sentence that sent a clear message: Asians are invisible. 

We were heartbroken to watch the interviews with Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, as she described how she had trusted the American justice system to do right by her son. She was forced to fight for him, and with the help of the Asian American civil rights group American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), they brought the first Asian American civil rights case to trial. We were inspired by their devotion to the cause, and wanted to help spread the word, but there was so much we still didn’t know. 

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The documentary was a great jumping-off point, but we wanted to know more, especially when it came to the civil rights movement itself and what exactly happened during the two civil rights trials. At the first trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but then the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and ordered a retrial, where he was then acquitted. The documentary doesn’t go into detail as to why exactly the conviction was overturned, why the retrial was granted and how the second trial was lost. The only insight given was that the second trial had an all-white jury in Cincinnati, unfamiliar with the context of what was happening in Detroit at the time. To us, it felt like there had to be more to the story. 

We could not find much information online about the case outside of what was already in the documentary, but we were able to learn about one of the central members of the movement, Helen Zia. Her undying commitment to this case is a testament to the movement and the memory of Vincent Chin. She is an icon within the Asian American community, someone we admire as our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So, what better place to start than her incredible book, Asian American Dreams, which had a chapter about her work on the Vincent Chin case? We learned a great deal about the other players in the movement, which was led by ACJ, and some of the obstacles and hardships they faced in getting a civil rights trial before a judge. But again, the book was thin on details about those trials. The only additional piece of information for that question was that the civil rights cases revolved around “recorded audio tapes” which pushed the appeal through. Although we didn’t find the details we were looking for, Zia’s book did introduce us to Liza Chan. She was the labor attorney who investigated the criminal case pro-bono, gathering enough evidence and testimonies to compel federal prosecutors to bring indictments. She was at the center of the investigation, so she had to lead us to something of substance. 

We dug deeper into other sources and discovered what Helen was alluding to when writing about the “recorded audio tapes.” Liza was accused of having had improperly coached Vincent’s friends who were with him the night of the murder. She had recorded the conversation. The defense team discovered these recordings, which gave them grounds for an appeal. This was a huge find in our research, but a huge punch in the gut as sympathizers to the cause. These tapes seemed to let the killers walk free. But again, the details were sparse, and our trail ran cold. It was maddening. Just as we were getting answers, they only led to more questions. What exactly happened in that meeting? Why did she think it was a good idea to bring three witnesses together and record the conversation?

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Now with some basic knowledge of the case, we started reaching out to members of ACJ to try and understand what happened. Speaking with them gave us more context and a deeper understanding of how the organization worked, but they made it clear that if we wanted details, we would need to come to Detroit and sift through the archives ourselves. Our research was going from a Wikipedia rabbit hole to a full-blown journalistic investigation. If we were going to make sense of this case, the honorable thing to do was to go and talk to these people, face-to-face. It was the only way we could figure out why Vincent’s killers were never held accountable.

We made three trips to the Motor City over the next two years. Interviewed dozens of people, from family, friends, ACJ members, key players in the federal trials, to lawyers from both sides of the case. These interviews gave nuance to the story, as we began to understand the interplay of culture, both Detroit and Chinese, and saw how they shaped perspective. We sifted through thousands of pages of transcripts and archival materials, giving context to a now more robust story. Since Ronald and Michael had pled guilty and received a sentence, there was nothing to appeal in the criminal courts. All Helen and Liza could do was try and convince Judge Kaufman to reconsider, but they knew they were wasting their breath. Once they exhausted that avenue, the only recourse they had left was to make it into a federal civil rights case, the parameters of which we discovered were extremely narrow at that time. ACJ had reached out to the Michigan ACLU and Bar Association to see if they would take up the case, but they felt that civil rights law did not protect Asian Americans and declined. Up to this point, civil rights law was understood to protect African Americans. Beyond this racial component that was interpreted to leave out all non-African Americans, to be a civil rights case, you needed to show denial of service based on race. Think African Americans not being allowed to eat at lunch counters in the ‘50s. Because of this, ACJ needed to show a racial element to the crime that denied Vincent access to the bar, while convincing the Department of Justice that Asian Americans deserved civil rights protection under the law. The very structure of the justice system forced the movement to focus on the events that occurred within the bar. Anything that happened outside the bar became academic. Through a massive publicity and activism campaign by ACJ, and the efforts of Liza Chan and other ACJ lawyers in putting together a case, they were able to convince the Department of Justice for the first time that the murder of an Asian American deserved to be prosecuted as a civil rights case. A monumental achievement. 

Since Liza put the case together, she was our next stop. It was obvious that she wouldn’t intentionally jeopardize the case, so the tapes seemed like an honest mistake, but we wanted to hear her side of the story. After some correspondence with her, we were honored to find out that we would be the first people in 35 years that she felt comfortable enough to speak with about the case. She said she felt something special about us. We would go back out to Detroit during the chilly fall season and visit Liza at her home in Ann Arbor. 

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Liza would open the door and warmly welcome us in, like an excited Chinese auntie who hasn’t seen you in months. She was bound to a wheelchair after a long battle with her deteriorating health that started around the time of Vincent’s case. She told us about her loves, her passions, the struggles she had gone through that eventually led her to a life of positivity and happiness. Before we knew it, two hours had gone by. We still hadn’t gotten to the touchy questions yet, because Liza was just so damn charming. We eventually found a segue and asked about the tapes. Her smile faded, quickly replaced by an expression we interpreted as one of overwhelming guilt. She explained that her intention of getting Vincent’s friends — Gary, Bob and Jimmy together wasn’t to “coach” their testimonies, as the defense made it seem. She just wanted to get the timeline straight: what time they got to the bar, how long they were there, etc. It was purely a meeting about logistics, not substance, an aspect she felt was misinterpreted by the person who transcribed the tapes. Liza felt they didn’t understand her accent, which ended up painting this meeting she conducted with the witness in the worst light. None of that seemed to assuage her guilt, though, as she told us that she always wanted to apologize to Lily Chin for her mistake. Liza said that even after losing the second federal trial, Lily was still warm and maternal with her, but they never addressed the elephant in the room. We could feel the burden she had carried all these years, and it destroyed us. Regardless of her intentions, the court viewed any coaching as improper, and the witnesses were forever tainted because of it. As we left, we realized that this life of positivity she had created was her coping mechanism. Without it, she may very well have been swallowed by her guilt. It was survival, and it was brave. 

When we interviewed Vincent’s childhood best friend Gary Koivu, we got a better understanding of what it felt like in that room with Liza and the other friends from the bachelor party, Bob Siroskey and Jimmy Choi.

“She started off by asking, ‘Were you lit?’ And I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that expression before. We’ve been drinking and Vincent had more than I did and he was kinda drunk. And then she said what would happen [in the trial]. And maybe all three of us were given our ideas at the same [time] or what we remembered. Actually, Jimmy, I believe, was the one that said Vincent called [Ronald] a ‘chicken shit’ and I was like ‘Oh, that’s right.’ I don’t think I remembered that but that refreshed my memory. But like I said, it didn’t look good at the trial that we corroborated our stories.” 

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He was confused as to why Liza brought them all together, but our impression was that he didn’t think anything nefarious was taking place. He wasn’t there to lie, which we later corroborated through the trial transcripts. From the criminal trial, to his meeting with Liza and finally the federal trials, Gary’s testimony always remained consistent. He testified to what he heard and didn’t make any guesses to what may have been said. We could sense that it was difficult for him to testify that he couldn’t hear anything in the strip club due to the loud music and the commotion. He was there to help his friend, and it probably gutted him that he couldn’t say more. He spoke fondly of Vincent. He admired his gregariousness. Vincent was sensitive, silly and a big partier. This was a side of Vincent we hadn’t been exposed to before: imperfect and three-dimensional. He was the symbol of a movement, but he was also a person. He was supposed to be married a week later, but instead, his family gathered for his funeral. What could have possibly happened in that bar to lead to this tragedy?

As we read further into the transcripts from the first federal trial, the events inside the bar became less clear. The prosecution put Racine Colwell on the stand after Gary. She purported to hear Ronald say, “Because of you motherfuckers we’re out of work!” That was the smoking gun of this case. It clearly showed racial motivation for the crime within the bar, but the defense used Gary’s testimony to chip away at her claims. How could she hear this over the loud noise of the bar and the music, not to mention she wasn’t even close to Ronald or Vincent during their altercation? Jimmy and Bob were up next. Their testimonies did not match one another, despite Liza Chan’s efforts. The defense used the transcripts from the criminal trial against Jimmy, showing his testimony changing over time: there were no racial remarks ever testified by him. But when it came down to the federal trial, more than a year later, he testified that he had heard, “Nip!” Jimmy would blame it on his memory, but it still didn’t look good for the prosecution’s case that his memory all of a sudden came back after all this media coverage promoting a hate crime. Bob’s testimony didn’t help either as he was a drunken mess that night. We could feel the case falling apart, which Prosecutor Ted Merritt later attested to in our interview with him. The events within the bar were quickly becoming a liability. 

A lesser-known aspect of that night’s events is what happened after everyone was kicked out of the bar. Ronald went to his car and got the baseball bat as everyone was leaving, and chased off Vincent and his friends. His son Michael was bleeding from the head, an injury from the fight, which he of course blamed Vincent for, but from most accounts was his own fault. The fight should have ended there, but Ronald wanted to find Vincent and exact his revenge. They began to drive around and look for him, even picking up a passerby named Jimmy Perry and paid him $20 to get in the car and help look. They prowled around for 20 minutes, driving 15 miles per hour under the speed limit until they found Vincent in a McDonald’s parking lot. They jumped out of the car and chased after Vincent, who tripped into the street. Michael grabbed Vincent in a bear hug so he couldn’t get away, and that’s when Ronald began to lay into him. The officer on the scene would later testify that Vincent was motionless on the ground when Ronald hauled back like a full golf swing and bludgeoned Vincent’s head. The crack echoed through the parking lot. Two cops were immediately on him.  

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Ronald claimed he had hired Jimmy Perry to drive them to a hospital to tend to Michael’s wounds. Merritt pushed Ronald into a corner on this point, “If you were really going to the hospital to check on your son’s head, why was Michael the one driving and going 10-15 miles per hour on a 30mph road?” Merritt’s line of questioning left Ronald speechless. He hit a nerve. Ronald’s silence on the stand spoke volumes as to what was in his mind that night. Although there weren’t any racial remarks that could be proven during the course of the hunt, there was a major sense of implicit bias, and the excuses the defense was using were smacked down by the prosecution. Actions spoke louder than words, and the jury saw that. Ronald was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but Michael was acquitted…at least until the verdict was overturned more than a year later. 

In our interview with Merritt, we told him that we felt his line of questioning about those 20 minutes Ronald spent hunting down Vincent saved the case. Those 20 minutes are what reminded us of the Atlanta killings. It was reported that after his killing spree, Robert Aaron Long drove south for two hours in the hopes of killing more people at a spa in Florida. This was his plan by his own admission, but the cops were able to apprehend him before he crossed the Georgia border. Think about that. After murdering eight people, he was alone with his thoughts for two hours, and at no point thought, “Killing those people was wrong.” If he did, he would not have been driving to kill more people. It seems clear that he felt justified. Same as Ronald, who stalked Vincent down Woodward Avenue that night, determined to kill him. The justifications in their minds were the same. 

The victory was short-lived, as Liza’s tapes were used to grant an appeal for Ronald and Michael. Ted Merritt did not prosecute the second federal trial, and the new prosecutor did not emphasize this part of the night like Merritt did, perhaps partially because the defense had learned their lesson from the first trial: do not let Ronald testify. He was detrimental to his own case. On top of all of that, the second trial took place in Cincinnati, so the jury was not familiar with the cultural context of Detroit at the time. All of these confounding factors coalesced into a second tragedy. Without those 20 minutes made clear and Ronald’s inability to explain it, the jury was left with inconsistent testimony from inside the bar, and the case was lost. Ronald’s conviction was overturned. Although Liza’s tapes might have been the cause of the appeal, they weren’t entirely the cause of the acquittal. This is something we wish we would’ve been able to make her see before she passed away. Without her, there was no case to be had. She made something out of nothing. She gave hope to Lily, the Chin family and the entire Asian American community, but all she could see was the pain she felt she caused.  

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We are living through another period of increased violence against Asian Americans. We fear that the events of March 16 in Atlanta may not be the last. We must arm ourselves with the lessons of the past to combat the bigotry of our present. Ronald killed Vincent because he thought it was his right. He tracked him down for 20 minutes, prowling the streets, looking for an Asian man. The bar fight was over. The heat of the moment, gone. He had been in bar fights before. None of them ended in cold-blooded murder. So why was this different? Ronald felt justified in what he was doing, and we have to assume he felt that way because he was white and Vincent was Asian. Vincent was a loud aggressive Asian man, not demure and docile, like the stereotype. Perhaps this was what separated him from the other bar fights Ronald had been in. Vincent wasn’t acting the way he was supposed to, showing the proper respect and deference. We know Ronald felt justified because he never showed any remorse for killing Vincent, and to this day claims it was just a bar fight that got out of hand. He has accepted zero responsibility in his death. In fact, he thinks it’s Vincent’s fault for instigating the fight. Such a mentality is the result of a mind diseased by white privilege.

In this aspect, Long is of the same mind. He seems to take responsibility for his actions by blaming his sex addiction, but this is a case of double-speak. By justifying the murders with his sex addiction, he places the blame for the murders at the feet of the victims. They tempted him, of course. So, in actuality, he is not accountable. This might seem to be a case of semantics, given his plea deal, but it’s very important that we’re clear as to what happened. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat such tragedies. If he chose these women because they were Asian, either out of a fetish he had, or an assumption they were sex workers, the underlying motive is racially based. This aspect of the case must not be lost. 

We’ve learned that proving this mindset in a court of law is extremely difficult, whether because juries have biases or because they are reluctant to interpret what’s in someone’s mind…even when the actions of the perpetrators seem clear. We should remember this when Robert Aaron Long is brought to justice. When obvious hate crimes aren’t pursued based on a poorly constructed justice system; or when the crime should fit the criminal, not the crime, as Judge Kaufman said; we are not living in a free and just society. We know that Judge Kaufman’s ruling is just thinly veiled racism. When it takes the mobilization of a people across an entire country to demand the same dignity in justice as their white counterparts—something is broken. We’ve seen this before. Let’s get it right this time. 

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About the Authors: Anthony Ma is an actor, filmmaker and former Executive Director of the Taiwanese American Film Festival. His short film, “Chinese Antique,” screened at numerous film festivals around the country and received several audience choice awards. His feature, “Elevator,” which was filmed in Los Angeles, New York, and Japan garnered an “Honorable Mention for Screenwriting” at DisOrient Asian Film Festival and his latest feature, “Staycation,” premiered at the final LA Film Festival and received the “LA Muse Award.” As an actor, he has most notably guest-starred on the hit ABC series “Scandal” and the CBS action series “S.W.A.T.” He most recently appeared on the NBC drama “This Is Us,” and can be seen on both seasons of HBO Max’s Asian American food show called “Family Style.”

Alexandra (Alle) Hsu is a director/producer who was named the Kearny Street Workshop APAture Featured Artist in Film in 2019, and was highlighted on NBC News/NBC Asian America. Alle’s short films “Sophie” and “Our Way Home” have gone to numerous festivals around the world, and her most recent film “Unread” placed second in the pilot program, the CBS Leadership Pipeline Challenge.

Hear more about their Vincent Chin research on Ken Fong’s Asian America Podcast and follow them on Instagram at @anthonyma and @allehsu.

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