Field Notes

Twenty-five years later, a murder still resonates for lawyer

Twenty-five years later, a murder still resonates for lawyer
Mulugeta Seraw.

Sometimes the most innocent of moments can result in events that leave a profound impact.

It was the night of Nov. 12, 1988 and Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant studying at Portland State, was being dropped off at his apartment on Southeast 31st Avenue.

He was 28 years old, had a son and would not live much longer.

At the same time, a car with three young, white men and some of their girlfriends was driving by.

There was a confrontation.

The three men in the car – Ken Mieske, Kyle Brewster and Steve Strasser – were part of a group known as the East Side White Pride. The group was loosely affiliated with White Aryan Resistance. They were also known as skinheads.

Earlier in the day they had handed out racist literature at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

The confrontation quickly escalated and Mieske grabbed a bat and split Seraw’s skull.

The three fled, leaving friends of Seraw to watch him die.

They would all be convicted – Mieske of murder, the other two of manslaughter and assault.

But that would only be the beginning.

The Southern Poverty Law Center headed by Morris Dees brought a lawsuit against The White Aryan Resistance and its leaders.

The family would win $12.5 million, bankrupting the organization.

Helping lead the suit on behalf of the family was Elden Rosenthal.

“I can't remember when I heard about the murder,” Rosenthal remembered Tuesday. “I assume I read about it in the newspaper with everybody else.”

Rosenthal does, however, remember how he got involved.

“Morris Dees came to town and dinner was organized with a half a dozen lawyers,” he remembers. “Morris explained the case and that he needed a local lawyer.  I explained to Morris my trial lawyer background, but, more importantly, I explained to him how my family had escaped the Holocaust in Germany.

“I told him that my entire career had prepared me for this case.”

Rosenthal says that growing up in a family that had escaped Europe, issues surrounding racism and violence were discussed around the family dinner table and became central to his thinking.

“I became a lawyer because I became convinced that what separated the United States from Europe was the Bill of Rights and the rule of law,” he says.

After graduating law school, Rosenthal began practicing criminal defense law and civil-rights law.

“By the time I met Morris Dees, I was no longer doing criminal defense work, but was actively involved in civil rights issues,” he says. “I had also become an experienced trial lawyer. So everything came together, my family's history, my commitment to the rule of law and using the courts to protect civil rights.”

There was one other thing.

“And, of course, the defendants were neo-Nazis. It was my chance, on a personal level, to fight back against what had happened to my family in Europe.”

Even after the trial, Rosenthal stayed in touch with Dees and the Law Center.

“Now I’m on the Board of Directors supporting this wonderful organization that combats hatred and intolerance across the country,” he says.

Rosenthal says that while Portland is no longer the city that it was a quarter-century ago, there is still work to do.

“Portland has become a much more metropolitan city in the 25 years since Mulegeta's death,” he says. “But there are still people in the Portland metropolitan area who hate, and there are still people in the Portland metropolitan area who are violent.

“Although Portland has changed, our need to be vigilant against hatred and intolerance has not changed.”

It’s a situation, he says, that is mirrored on a national scale.

“On the one hand, middle-class youth in much of America, in my opinion, are more accepting of differences, racial and gender, than ever before,” he says. “On the other hand, there are more hate groups in America than ever before.

“Since President Obama has been elected, the SPLC has observed that the number of hate groups in America has multiplied.”

Rosenthal says it is for all these reasons – and more – that we need to keep the story of Mulegeta Seraw alive.

“He was murdered by skinheads who represented a sector of American society that fears the future, and fears people that are different. Twenty-five years later these fears still consume a sector of our society,” Rosenthal says.

“We should remember Mulegeta, and what happened to him, and teach our children the need to be ever vigilant against hatred and racism, we should teach our children tolerance as a basic human virtue.”