Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard at the Minority Bar Convention, April 15, 2011

“The death of a man was the birth of a movement.”

That was one of the sorrowful yet inspiring messages conveyed at this year’s Minority Bar Convention, sponsored by the State Bar of Arizona.

Held in Phoenix last week on Thursday and Friday, it featured a roundup of seminars, updates from sister bar associations, a free-wheeling assessment of Arizona’s immigration laws, and a re-enactment of a historic trial.

The opening quotation comes from that re-enactment. There, a wide variety of lawyers stood in for participants in the murder case of the victim Victor Chin (which I previewed here). The 1982 death and legal case that followed yielded little justice, according to the family of the dead man. But it did lead to an awakening among Asian Americans of the need to protect their civil liberties.

As a speaker introduced the case, “Though the case is no longer infamous, for Asian Americans it has never stopped being iconic.”

That case began in a Detroit strip club, and ended with a young Chinese American bridegroom bludgeoned with a baseball bat just blocks away. Chin died four days later.

Lisa Loo at the Minority Bar Convention, April 14, 2011

The seminar examined the tenor of the times, when American auto workers were losing a car-battle to the Japanese, and anyone of Asian descent was subject to ridicule—or worse.

The two men who killed Chin eventually were convicted of manslaughter and given three years’ probation, fined $3,000 and ordered to pay $780 in court costs.

As the trial judge had said in a quotation that infuriated the community, “These weren’t the kind of men you sent to jail.”

In a subsequent 1984 federal trial alleging civil rights violations, one of the men was found guilty of one count, whereas the second was acquitted. But the family’s pain was not complete. Due to problems at and before trial, the Sixth Circuit reversed and ordered a new trial. Upon retrial in Cincinnati rather than Detroit, a jury found the defendant not guilty.

Polled afterward last Friday, the room of lawyers at the Minority Bar Convention was split on whether they would have convicted. Even among those who found the behavior criminal, many lawyers hesitated as they examined the evidence. As one attendee noted, “Bad cases make bad law. This was a state court case that never should have been elevated to a federal case.”

Not all agreed with that, as became evident in a conversation among panelists moderated by Jose Cardenas, formerly of Lewis and Roca and now the General Counsel at ASU. On the panel were former Judge (now professor) Penny Willrich, Annie Lai of the ACLU, Melanie Pate of the Arizona Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, and lawyer Margarita Silva.

As Professor Willrich said, “When will it ever end? If people’s hearts don’t change, the violence never will.”

Also featured that morning were clips from the 1987 documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” which was nominated for an Academy Award.

The programming continued that morning with a panel of three prominent lawyers discussing Arizona’s immigration laws. Former Attorney General Terry Goddard, former state Representative David Lujan and state Senator Adam Driggs took on the most hot-button of topics.

More photos are at the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.