Chol Soo Lee, whose wrongful conviction helped spark the Asian American Movement, dies at 62

Chol Soo Lee, whose 1974 wrongful conviction for first-degree murder, helped spark the modern Asian American Movement.
Chol Soo Lee, whose 1974 wrongful conviction for first-degree murder, helped spark the modern Asian American Movement, died on Wednesday at the age of 62.

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.

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