Panel revisits Chol Soo Lee legacy
Standing room only to see former death row inmate speak
March 15, 2008 11:53 AM
Thirty-five years ago, Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 21 for a murder he did not commit. While jailed, he killed an inmate, claiming self defense and was then sentenced to death.
He spent nearly ten years in prison, four of those on death row, before one of the first Asian American movements organized to successfully fight for his exoneration. Now, Lee wants an apology from the city of San Francisco for his false incarceration.
On March 14, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Seven Hills Conference Center on campus, Chol Soo Lee, California State Assemblyman Warren Furutani, reporter K.W. Lee and several other speakers revisited the 1970s movement that led to his acquittal.
The event, titled “Remembering a Movement: The Free Chol Soo Lee Movement 25 Years Later,” was moderated by associate professor of Asian American Studies, Grace Yoo.
Topics in the two-part event ranged from racism, inadequacies in the criminal justice system, the need for ethnic studies and civil rights advocacy, and the role SF State students played in mobilizing the Pan Asian American movement to Free Chol Soo Lee.
Asian students of different ethnicities united in a said unprecedented show of support for a man wrongly convicted by the courts.
“Everybody got involved. It was just the thing to do,” said Mike Suzuki, head of the Los Angeles Public Defenders Office, of the movement. “We rallied behind one man. We all heard and believed [he was innocent] because of the stories by K.W. Lee. I looked just like Chol Soo back then so it could have been me.”
K.W. Lee, one of the first Asian reporters to cover the Civil Rights Movement, investigated Chol Sol’s case for six months, writing over 120 stories that disclosed evidence of his innocence. His published findings led to the formation of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, a grassroots organization of students, lawyers, church members and ordinary people that raised more than $40 million for Lee’s defense and eventual bail.
Many of the speakers were once students involved in the movement, prompted to organize by a series of articles written by then-Sacramento Union reporter K.W. Lee.
Oakland School Board President, David Kakishiba was 19 when he got involved with the defense committee. “My thing was I wanted to be a revolutionary,” he said.
Several Asian Studies classes were required to attend the symposium, including Asian-American studies Professor Doug Kim’s two courses.
“I think the implications it has for us as a minority and Asians is very important and also as many people said, ‘If you don’t know you’re history, you don’t have a sense of identity,” Kim said, explaining why he made attendance mandatory for his students. “More importantly, if you don’t know about past injustices, you don’t recognize them when they’re reenacted.”
Lee spoke about an African American man currently incarcerated for 28 years also for a crime he did not commit.
Speakers stressed that if it could happen to Lee, it could happen to anyone.
“This is not an Asian issue. It’s not a Korean issue. It’s a human issue,” K.W. Lee said in a video shown of the case.
In 1973, Lee was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Yip Yee Tak, a gang member gunned down during the day in front of hundreds of witnesses while waiting for a light to change in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Six white tourists described the killer as an Asian male, 5’7 to 5’10, 145 to 160 pounds. Three pointed to the 5’2, 120 pound Lee in a line-up.
“Their testimony conflicted,” former San Francisco Superior Court judge Susan Lew said. “ ‘He had a mustache, he didn’t have a mustache’ - Basically they were just looking for an Asian male and Chol Soo being an immigrant was caught up in this net.”
A gun went off in Lee’s Chinatown apartment the night before the killing, prompting his initial arrest. Ballistic tests later wrongly cited this weapon as the one used in the murder.
But there were other discrepancies in the Chinatown murder investigation that led to Lee’s wrongful incarceration.
“Years later we found out that the prosecutor wrongly withheld explicatory evidence, evidence that would have shown that Chol Soo was not responsible for the crime because there was another eye witness [Steven Morris] who showed that” Lee was not there, Lew said during the panel’s question-and-answer period.
There were 16 unsolved, gang-related murders in Chinatown at the time, placing tremendous political pressure on then-mayor Joseph Alioto to find the killer, speakers said.
Chol Soo Lee, who could barely spell or speak English, and who had a criminal record—was on probation for attempted theft when he was arrested for murder - was an easy target for police, speakers said.
“If you’re in the legal system and you can’t afford a good attorney, then you’re probably not going to get good justice,” Furutani said.
While incarcerated at the Deuel Vocational Institute, Lee killed white supremacist, Morrison Needham, claiming self-defense. For this offense, he was sentenced to death.
If not for the mobilization of countless Asian Americans, he would have been executed as an innocent man, Lew said. “It took this entire community of people to free an innocent man from death row.”
Assimilating back into society did not come easy to Lee, however. He turned to drugs as an escape from being institutionalized for so long, he said. “Perhaps my life could have been different, much more positive, but eventually I found myself,” said Lee, who’s been sober now for 14 years.
Now 55, Lee is currently recording his memoirs which will include an account of his experience in the criminal justice system. “I feel the will to come back into the community. I want to live in a society where we can inspire and grow and fight against all injustices in humanity,” he said.
Lee said he is currently seeking a re-examination of his case. “I do not seek any money but … I’m still seeking an apology for that murder I did not commit 35 years ago in San Francisco.”
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