It was a real-life “Serial“.
On June 7, 1973, Korean American Chol Soo Lee was arrested in California and charged with the first-degree murder in the shooting death of Yip Yee Tak, a leader of a local Chinatown gang. Evidence against Lee was shaky, and hinged primarily upon witness identification of Lee in a suspect lineup; however, physical descriptions of the shooter given prior to the lineup did not resemble Lee. Based mostly on this evidence, however, Lee was tried and convicted in 1974 of Tak’s murder, and sentenced to life without parole. Six months into his sentence, Lee killed fellow inmate, Morrison Needham — Lee claimed the killing was in self-defense after the white supremacist attacked him — and was sentenced to death row, making him the first Asian American on death row in San Quentin.
Lee’s case first came to public interest after journalist K.W. Lee, founder of the Korean American Journalists Association, first heard about Chol Lee and contacted him for an interview in 1977. K.W. Lee investigated Yip Yee Tak’s 1973 murder, and convinced of Chol Lee’s innocence, he went on to pen over 120 articles in what became known as the “Alice in Chinatown Murder Case” investigative journalism series.
K.W. Lee’s writing asserting Chol Lee’s innocence captured the attention of Asian Americans around the country, who at the time were politically stratified. Efforts to win Chol Lee’s exoneration unified these disparate ethnic communities behind the growing Asian American Movement, earning Chol Lee a retrial and an eventual overturning of his murder conviction.
Chol Lee seemed, initially, a dubious figure to rally behind having struggled to assimilate in San Francisco after immigrating with his mother from South Korea. Chol Lee had a juvenile record and ironically, he was described by a community advocate as “not an angel” (sound familiar?). yet, as I recently wrote, we must reject the urgings of respectability politics and its suggestion that people of colour are only valuable when we embody the impossible standard of the infantalized “angel”.
Motivated by K.W. Lee’s tireless writing, a group of predominantly Korean American community members formed the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee that slowly built momentum behind the campaign to appeal Chol Lee’s initial murder conviction. On August 11, 1982, Chol Lee’s retrial begins and less than a month later, the jury acquitted Chol Lee of Yip Yee Tak’s murder. Lee remained on death row for the murder of Morrison Needham, but in 1983, an appeals court reversed the conviction and set Chol Lee free.
Upon his release, Lee was invited to tour the country giving seminars about his experiences to the Asian American community. Asian Week reported:
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.”
However, Lee suffered from the effects of institutionalization. As interest in his story waned over time, Lee struggled to hold down a job and was involved in several petty crimes, including an arson attempt that left him badly burned over 85% of his body.
On Wednesday, December 3rd, Chol Soo Lee passed away from digestive complications. He was 62.
Chol Soo Lee never won an apology or redress for the ten years he spent in prison for a wrongful conviction. In 2008, Lee told Asian Week, “I never got [an official answer] for why I spent 10 years in prison, by the city or anyone.”
My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Chol Soo Lee today, as we remember the life of a man who helped spark a movement.