Why an All-White Bench Is Unacceptable to Me: The Perspective of an Asian-American Lawyer

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Photo credit: NextShark

Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American murdered in Detroit in 1982, set in motion the events that led me to join the protest against the justice system’s current failure toward communities of color, to add my voice to those speaking out against Anne Arundel County Circuit Court’s tradition of a virtually all-white bench.

Vincent Chin, a first generation Chinese-American, was beaten to death by two white autoworkers during a time of resentment about the loss of American auto-manufacturing jobs to Japan. The events giving rise to his violent death began at a neighborhood bar where he was having his bachelor party. One of his attackers instigated an altercation, telling him, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” After Vincent and his friends left the club, his attackers searched for him and dragged him out of a McDonald’s. One held him down while the other repeatedly struck him in the head with a baseball bat and crushed his skull.  He died four days later – less than a week before his wedding.

Vincent’s killers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, never served a day in jail. They were charged with second-degree murder and pled guilty to manslaughter. They were sentenced to probation and fined $3,000 each. In explaining the lenient sentence for the killers, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Charles Kaufman, a white man, stated, “We’re talking here about a man who’s held down a responsible job with the same company for 17 or 18 years, and his son who is employed and is a part-time student. These men are not going to go out and harm somebody else. I just didn’t think that putting them in prison would do any good for them or for society. You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”’

Americans of all Asian ethnicities were outraged by the sentence. This outrage led to the formation of unprecedented coalitions across Asian ethnic groups to protest the judiciary’s failure to recognize that Vincent’s life mattered. The justice system’s failure birthed the pan-Asian civil rights movement in the United States.  

Because of that movement, I became conscious of the vital importance of diversity on the bench. Because of that movement, I recognize that it is inexcusable that the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, in 2017, has an all-white bench and has had only two judges of color, both men, during its 366-year existence.  

The injustice done to Vincent Chin shows why it is vital that our courts reflect the diversity of the communities they judge. I cannot presume to know what was in Judge Kaufman’s heart when he concluded that Vincent’s killers were not “going to go out and harm somebody else.” Two things, however, are abundantly clear to me. First, if Judge Kaufman had been Asian-American, he would have been hard pressed to conclude that two men who killed a person because he was Asian did not pose a future threat to him and would not “go out and harm somebody else.” In other words, Judge Kaufman’s whiteness allowed him to feel safe with Vincent’s killers living free in his community. Second, Judge Kaufman’s sentence sent a message that the identities of Vincent’s killers and the impact of a sentence on their lives mattered more to him than Vincent’s life and brutal demise.       

Vincent’s story, over 30 years later, is at the forefront of my mind whenever I hear that someone who killed a person of color is not punished. I see Vincent in the countless not guilty verdicts for law enforcement officers who kill black men and women and never serve one day in jail. I think of the outrage of the Asian community over Vincent, and I multiply it hundreds of times over to account for the ongoing assault on the black community. I multiply it hundreds of times over because at least Vincent’s killers did not have a duty to serve and protect him.   

Vincent’s mother moved back to China because remaining in the United States was too painful a reminder of her son’s death and the justice system’s failure to do justice.  His mother’s words encapsulate today’s crisis: “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.”

Today, we just substitute the word “Chinese” with “Black.”

Leah Frazier is an attorney and a hockey fan from Anne Arundel County.

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