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APABA-DC Massie Trial Reenactment Spotlights Race and Justice Issues

By John Murph

May 3, 2019


On April 17 the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Washington, D.C. (APABA-DC) held a reenactment of Hawaii’s 1930s Massie cases, a timely reminder of the importance of due process in the administration of justice.

The reenactment, held at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, featured a distinguished cast of judges, lawyers, and legal professionals. In staging the reenactment, the APABA-DC sought to spotlight the issues of race, discrimination, civil rights, and the struggle for justice against bigotry.

“The Massie cases are a really interesting juxtaposition, because historically women have not been believed when they accused men or other people of sexual violence against them. But these particular cases occurred in the context of high racial tension,” said Anjum Unwala, APABA-DC’s vice president of community affairs. “These two challenging topics of conversation are at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds today.”

The trials involved Thalia Massie, a young, white socialite who was married to Thomas Massie, a junior lieutenant stationed with the Navy in Honolulu, Hawaii. After leaving a party early due to a spat with her husband, Thalia was found with a bruised face and swollen lips on an isolated stretch of road. She claimed she had been sexually assaulted by a group of five or six “dark-skinned Hawaiians,” but it was too dark to offer any other details. A hospital exam was inconclusive. Five Hawaiian men were later indicted for raping her.

“There’s a part of you that wants to believe the alleged victim, but then there’s this stark contrast with the racial anxiety and racial animus against people who are darker skinned among the Asian Pacific American community in Hawaii,” Unwala said.

Because the jury couldn’t reach a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial. Still, the trial garnered widespread U.S. media attention, with the defendants often depicted as sex-hungry thugs against a xenophobic backdrop.

Thomas Massie and Thalia’s mother were accused of murdering one of the defendants, Joseph Kahahawai. The jury reached a verdict of manslaughter but recommended leniency for each defendant. Hawaii’s governor commuted their sentences to one hour.

The cases have since entered American pop culture. Norman Katkov’s 1983 novel Blood & Orchids was loosely based on the trials. That book was later turned into a screenplay for a 1986 TV miniseries. In 1996 Max Allen Collins also wrote a book, Damned in Paradise, that followed the factual evidence of the trials more closely. And in 2016 Investigation Discovery revisited the cases in the episode “A Crime to Remember.”

“[The Massie cases] go back to the historical context of how people of color have been seen in the United States, especially when it comes to allegations involving a white victim and an alleged person-of-color perpetrator,” Unwala said. “The case presents some challenging questions that we have to still deal with.”