It was May 1983. Stewart Kwoh, who had just co-founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), was reading the Los Angeles Times when he came across an article about the state court sentencing in the Vincent Chin case.
Kwoh, the executive director of APALC, had never heard about the June 1982 murder of Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American man in Detroit by two white auto-workers Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz – who thought Chin was Japanese. During that time, many Americans blamed the Japanese for the ailing U.S. auto industry.
“I was outraged the killers only got probation and a fine,’’ he said.
He picked up the phone and called the attorneys listed in the article. He told them of his civil rights background and offered his help.
Kwoh flew to Detroit, and APALC became involved in the case. Kwoh suggested to the team of attorneys that they focus their efforts on getting the U.S. Department of Justice to bring a civil rights prosecution on hate crime charges.
APALC was the only out-of-state co-counsel to the Detroit-based organization American Citizens for Justice (ACJ). Both organizations co-wrote an investigative report aimed at calling federal authorities’ attention to the crime.
ACJ launched a grassroots campaign to pressure the government to file charges. Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Lily Chin, traveled across the country, advocating for justice for her son. In the summer of 1984, she came to Los Angeles. While speaking in a crowded Chinatown restaurant, Mrs. Chin fainted. Kwoh and others helped her to her feet.
She stayed at the Kwoh home that night. Kwoh said he asked her if she was OK.
“She said, ‘Stewart, there’s nothing I can do to bring back Vincent, but I don’t want any other mother to go through what I’ve gone through,’’’ he recalled. “I was so touched about what she said. Vincent was her only child. He was all she had.”
The federal civil rights case was eventually filed. Vincent Chin was the first Asian American victim prosecuted under the federal hate crime law.
During the first federal trial, Ebens was convicted of violating Chin’s civil rights and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Nitz was found not guilty. But Eben’s conviction was appealed, and he was eventually acquitted after a re-trial that was ordered to be held in Cincinnati.
Mrs. Chin ended up moving back to China. Kwoh and his family visited her in 1995.
“She was smiling, but I could see in her eyes that she had lost everything,’’ he recalled of the visit. “What happened was not just a tragedy for her and her family, but an indictment of the U.S. justice system.”
Mrs. Chin died in 2002. She was 82.
The Vincent Chin case eventually led Kwoh and other Asian American leaders to call for the founding of a national organization to advocate for all Asian Americans. APALC, the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and the Asian American Legal Education Defense Fund (AALDEF) collectively founded the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in 1991, which is now called the Asian American Justice Center.
On the local level, Kwoh also encouraged the Los Angeles Police Department to monitor hate crimes.
“Hate crimes still occur. And when they do, we have to make sure there is justice,’’ he said.