Nobody denies that Fred Aslin was horribly mistreated by the state of Michigan. After his father died during the Depression, he and most of his eight brothers and sisters were taken from their mother, who was having difficulty caring for them, and placed in the Lapeer State School, an old-fashioned mental institution hundreds of miles from their Upper Peninsula home.
When they turned 18, the state sterilized them, one by one, against their will. Fred fought hard when they tried to get him to consent to the operation. "I said no," he recalled. "I didn't want it. I didn't want anyone cutting on me."
Without a lawyer being appointed to represent him, papers were signed by a probate judge at a hearing Aslin was not allowed to attend. He was represented by a guardian he says he never met. But he was sterilized in August 1944.
"They said it was because we were feeble-minded morons and that any children we might have would be just like us, or worse," he said.
Yet he was not mentally retarded at all. "My brother John always thought it was because we were just poor Indians," said Aslin, 73, who is of mixed Ottawa and Chippewa ancestry.
Now, Aslin, a resident of Hobbs, Ind., is suing the state. A probate judge on Friday ruled that his lawsuit cannot go forward because Michigan's three-year statute of limitations has long since run out. But Aslin and his attorney are likely to appeal, and the state's higher court has ruled in cases with similar circumstances that an individual whose rights might have been violated can sue in spite of the statute of limitations.
If eventually successful, Aslin's case could have profound implications across the nation. Michigan, like at least 27 other states, passed laws allowing or mandating forced sterilization of "mental defectives" during the heyday of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. J.H. Kellogg, the Battle Creek, Mich., breakfast cereal magnate, was a prime mover in what was then seen as enlightened science. He touted forced sterilization at a "race betterment conference" he hosted in 1914 for what he saw as the intellectual elite.
That spurred the state legislature to take swift action. More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the next few decades, 2,339 of them at Lapeer alone.
What matters most to Aslin, however, is that neither he nor his brothers or most of his sisters could have children. "They sterilized all the males, meaning the end of my family [name] in this generation," he said.
Aslin was released from Lapeer in 1948. He fought in the Korean War, during which he took a bullet through the lung and nearly died. After recovering, he went on to successfully farm a 125-acre spread and marry a widow with two infant sons, whom he raised as his own.
One of those children, Frank Hall, is a retired deputy sheriff. He bristles at the treatment his stepfather received and wonders how it could happen. "Fred? Retarded?" Hall said. "No way. His brothers weren't either. I wish I could get my hands on whoever allowed this to happen."
For years, Aslin said, he tried to think about Lapeer as little as possible. As he describes it, life there was something out of Dickens. "They fed us okay, but they beat us, knocked us around pretty good. Fists and belts. I tried to escape, but I couldn't."
In 1998, as he began to do some estate planning, the realization that he had no natural-born heirs to leave anything to prompted rekindled anger about how he had been treated. He thought about a lawsuit, and used the Freedom of Information Act to get his records. The more he read, the angrier he became.
"They labeled me a feeble-minded moron, over and over," Aslin said. The same records show he received praise for outstanding academic performance. He wrote to various state officials, asking only for an apology. None came.
So, he confided in a young lawyer, Lisa McNiff, who had handled a divorce case for him. She was horrified, but thought at first it was too late. But she searched case law and found that in some rare instances, Michigan courts have set aside the statute of limitations when the wronged person "was not and could not have been aware" that his or her rights had been violated.
"That's exactly what happened to Fred," McNiff said. "In order for the government to maintain immunity, they have to show that their conduct was not grossly negligent. They were. The documents in Fred's case show a callous disregard for individual patients."
Nor did her client know precisely what happened to him, or why, she argued. She compared his situation to that of a man who lost an eye because of a medical mistake during surgery in 1963. He did not know what had happened until his attorney managed to get his medical records in 1988. Six years later, the Michigan Supreme Court said he could sue.
The Michigan attorney general's office argued that the statute of limitations does apply in Aslin's case.
"The documentary evidence indicates that proper procedures were followed," said Kenneth Ross, an assistant attorney general. Aslin's assertions that he never met with his appointed guardian, nor was allowed to attend the hearing are "statements that would be impossible to refute at this late date, as all those who would have knowledge of the proceedings, other than the plaintiff, have undoubtedly died."
Chris DeWitt, a spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, indicated that the office did not condone what happened to the Aslins. "We do not believe that what was done at that time was proper by today's light, and it probably shouldn't have been proper in 1944. But the statute of limitations has run out long ago."
Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who frequently argues civil rights cases, was not surprised that the judge ruled against Aslin. "What really should happen is the legislature should give him some relief," by passing a private bill designed to compensate him for his suffering, Sedler said.
Whatever happens, Fred Aslin at least got the apology he has long wanted. In December, James K. Haveman, director of the Michigan Department of Community Health, met with him despite being advised by his staff not to do so. Afterward, he wrote him a moving letter.
"I would like to offer my personal apologies for your experiences at the Lapeer State Home," Haveman said. "Looking back on it now, it is clear that the treatment you and others received was offensive, inappropriate and wrong. . . . I am saddened that it took so long and so many had to suffer before the medical profession and judicial system realized how offensive the practice of sterilization was."