Turning the personal misfortune into an Asian American movement .
Even if March 28 marks the 25th anniversary of Chol Soo Lee’s exodus from San Quentin’s death row,the Korean American says that he treats the day like any other-pondering his life and his 10-year incarceration for a murder he says he did not commit.
In 1973, Lee was arrested and later convicted of murdering San Francisco Chinatown gang member Yip Yee Tak. The prosecutor persuaded a Sacramento jury that Lee had committed the crime, through the testimony of two witnesses who said they observed the shooting and a third who claimed to have seen Lee fleeing the murder scene. Though he maintained his innocence, Lee was given a life sentence. His obstacles to freedom increased when in 1977 he was charged with the murder of a fellow inmate at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, Calif. Lee was subsequently put on death row.
While incarcerated, Lee garnered the attention of a Korean American journalist at The Sacramento Union named K.W. Lee (no relation). The North Korean-born reporter wrote more than 100 articles about Chol Soo Lee, bringing national and international attention to his plight and sparking an Asian American movement dedicated to gaining justice for Chol Soo Lee. Students, immigrants and other activists formed the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, which raised money for Lee to hire new attorneys.
While Lee’s attorneys were preparing to defend his 1977 murder charge, they uncovered documents that had been withheld from Lee about the Chinatown murder case and contained information about another eyewitness to the 1973 shooting who had told police Lee was not the attacker.
Armed with the new information, Lee’s attorneys filed for relief from the court, alleging that the prosecutor from the Chinatown case had withheld material evidence from Lee. Lee was acquitted of Yip’s murder in 1982, but remained incarcerated for the second murder charge. After 10 years, Lee was released from prison on bail and later pled guilty to second-degree murder for the Needham killing, according to a deal arranged with prosecutors (Lee maintains that he never intended to kill Needham and that he acted in self-defense).Lee, who arrived from Korea when he was 12, says that in America he had no community from which he could receive guidance. Speaking no English and with a working single mother, Lee struggled to fit into his new country.
When Lee came to San Francisco, he said, he knew of no Korean American community organizations. Imagining what such an organization could have offered him, Kim speculates, “I would at least have had guidance from a Korean counselor [since] I did not meet one Asian, much less one Korean, counselor for guidance at school. It did not exist in 1964.”
By the time he was arrested for the Chinatown murder in 1973, Lee had already been in trouble with the law and was on parole for a grand theft conviction at the time of his arrest.
Lee finally found positive support from the Asian community while in prison. Besides raising money, the Defense Committee gave him hope, he says, that people believed in his innocence. After Lee’s release from prison, he found a job through a friend at a Korean multiservice center in San Francisco.
Lee later went to Los Angeles, working as a union organizer, and it was there that he developed a drug habit and was arrested for narcotics possession, for which he says he has no excuse. “I never got [an official answer] for why I spent 10 years in prison, by the city or anyone. But as for drugs, that I cannot blame on anyone but myself.”
After Lee returned to San Francisco from Los Angeles, he was reportedly charged with arson in 1992, and almost died from the burns he received in that fire. When asked about this, Lee declined to comment, saying it was “a personal matter.”
In the midst of numerous speaking engagements, Lee now shares his story with Bay Area youth, stressing the importance of engaging with the Asian American community. He is also working on writing an autobiography and is taking college classes, but says that he is still in the process of adjusting to his free life.
Lee believes that former prisoners are in dire need of reintegration services, especially Asian Americans, who may feel guilt and judgment from their community upon their return. Lee said the violence he encountered in prison has given him a new perspective on life. “When you go through that kind of experience and you see inhumane acts of violence … going through that brings out deeper humanity and compassion for other people.”
Even 25 years after his incarceration, every time he leaves his home, “It’s like I’m stepping out to another challenge. It’s a world that I’m still trying to get to know.”