Twenty years ago, a trial united a victim's son and a lawyer - and changed the course of their lives.
It was the moment of truth for the Southern Poverty Law Center in its courtroom battle against one of the nation’s most notorious white supremacist leaders.
The jury filed into the courtroom in Portland, Ore. A verdict had been reached. In a matter of minutes, lives would change forever.
The SPLC had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian graduate student brutally murdered in Portland in 1988 by a gang of racist skinheads organized by the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), a group led by neo-Nazi Tom Metzger and his son, John. The lawsuit sought to hold the Metzgers and their organization liable for the killing. An SPLC victory would almost guarantee WAR’s destruction.
All the work, the evidence, the witnesses, the testimony – it was all leading to this moment.
Sitting at the counsel table, SPLC co-founder Morris Dees held the victim’s 9-year-old son, Henock, in his lap. The boy sat with a somber expression, eyes askance, observing the courtroom and waiting for the verdict. A photographer snapped a photo of that moment, capturing an image that would come to symbolize the SPLC’s unwavering pursuit of justice.
Twenty years ago, when the verdict was read, the jury found WAR and the Metzgers responsible for the death. It awarded $12.5 million to the family of the slain student. WAR was decimated.
But the verdict was not the end of the story for those involved in the case. For one lawyer working with the SPLC, it was the beginning of a lifetime commitment to the little boy in the photo. For the little boy, it was the beginning of a life he never could have dreamed of as a child in Ethiopia.
A Pivotal Meeting
It was a chance meeting between Dees and James McElroy, a San Diego lawyer, that set these life-changing events in motion. At that meeting, McElroy jumped at the chance to work on the WAR case with Dees, volunteering his services on the spot.
McElroy’s work proved invaluable. Even before the case went to trial, he used his legal skills to prevent Metzger, who lived near San Diego, from disposing of his assets and potentially robbing the family of any award a jury might order. His work helped ensure that an SPLC victory would not be subverted by Metzger.
During the lengthy trial, McElroy worked on the sidelines with Dees and the rest of the legal team, doing everything from offering advice on jury selection to carrying boxes to the courtroom everyday.
“Jim was willing to help in any way he was needed,” said SPLC President Richard Cohen. “No job was too big or too small.”
After the verdict, he volunteered to go to Ethiopia for a meeting with the family to discuss how the money would be distributed. There, he saw Henock again and was captivated by the young boy who had courageously attended the trial. Henock lived in a small room with his mother, who was earning about $1 a day working for a bus company.
“She was struggling to keep her family fed,” McElroy said.
Henock had spent some time after the trial living with a relative in the United States and attending elementary school in San Francisco. But now, he was back in Ethiopia, where his opportunities were limited by the stark circumstances in his home country.
“I was so impressed by young Henock, I asked his mother if I could bring him back to the states for a summer vacation,” he said.
When the summer ended, McElroy had another request: He asked Henock’s mother if her son could stay in the United States to attend school. Again, she agreed. Eventually, McElroy had an even greater request, a request with life-altering implications for everyone involved: He wanted to adopt her son.
“Being a very loving mother, she made that sacrifice knowing that Henock’s life in the United States would be filled with opportunities he would never have in Ethiopia,” McElroy said.
Most importantly, her decision would allow him to receive the type of education and opportunities that his late father valued so much. Henock attended school in San Diego and later earned a political science degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Thanks to Jim and the SPLC, I received a good education and grew up with opportunities that helped me become who I am today,” he said.
He also enjoyed surfing and other, typical southern California pursuits. During high school, he took flying lessons, which were paid for with some of the money the SPLC had collected in the WAR case. Those lessons paved the way for a future career as a pilot.
“I’ve always had a passion for flying,” Henock said.
‘The luckiest guy I know’
After graduating college, he pursued flying as a career and now pilots 767s internationally for a major airline. He’s been flying professionally for four years. For Henock, whose first plane trip was to the United States for the WAR trial, it’s been a remarkable journey.
“Looking back, I know that none of this would have been possible if the SPLC hadn’t been here for me and my family,” he said. “I'm very grateful that there are people in this world who care enough to fight for justice, to speak out loud and clear when hateful people’s actions infringe the basic human rights of others.”
As for McElroy, it’s difficult for him to imagine the path his own life would have taken if not for that chance meeting with Dees decades ago. Since that meeting, McElroy has become a vital member of the SPLC family. He joined the board of directors and became its chairman. Today, he still serves on the board.
“Working with the dedicated people at the center has been the highlight of my 30-year professional career,” he said. “Because of my association with the center, I went to Ethiopia and found the remarkable and amazing Henock, who has filled my life with so much joy and pride. I’m the luckiest guy I know.”