In 1974, Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant in his early 20s, was wrongfully accused and convicted of a gangland murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown and sentenced to life in prison. In 1977, after serving several years of his sentence, Lee stabbed a neo-Nazi inmate to death during an altercation in the prison yard, which led to another first-degree murder conviction and a life sentence. dead.
After a series of investigative articles by journalist KW Lee of the Sacramento Union, a grassroots Free Chol Soo Lee movement led by Asian American activists mobilized to exonerate Chol Soo Lee, who was released from death row at San Quentin State Prison in 1983.
The Chol Soo Lee case exposed the biases and injustice of the American legal system and united Asian Americans, Asian immigrants and Asian nationals in a global, pan-Asian and intergenerational movement to collectively protest the discriminatory treatment Asians.
“Chol Soo Lee’s case has helped to forge a new political consciousness in many young Asian Americans, opening their eyes to social inequalities and the workings of institutional power in American society,” said Richard Kim, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California. Davis, and Chol Soo Lee’s memoir editor Freedom Without Justice: The Prison Memoirs of Chol Soo Lee.
Who was Chol Soo Lee?
Chol Soo Lee was a Korean immigrant born to a Korean woman and an American soldier in South Jeolla Province of South Korea in 1952. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1964 at the age of 12 to find his mother, who had already arrived. in the United States as a military wife, according to Richard Kim’s introduction in Freedom without justice. Lee’s mother was abusive and he had trouble adjusting to life in the United States, according to Kim. He was bullied, sentenced to juvenile prison for fighting, and then sent to the public mental institution, Napa State Hospital, where he was mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia.
On June 3, 1973, when he was 21 years old, Lee was arrested for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a Chinese-American linked to the Wah Ching gang, who was found shot dead on a street corner in the district of San Francisco. Chinese district. After three out of six white eyewitnesses identified Lee as the shooter in a police queue, he was convicted of first-degree murder on June 19, 1974, and sentenced to life in prison at Deuel Vocational. Institution in Tracy, California.
In 1977, while serving his sentence, Lee was in an altercation in the prison yard with a neo-Nazi named Morrison Needham and stabbed him to death in what he said was an act of self-defense. . Lee was convicted of first-degree murder for stabbing, sentenced to death, and transferred to death row at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, San Francisco Bay Area. .
What was the Free Chol Soo Lee movement?
In 1978, journalist Kyung Won Lee, who published under “KW Lee”, wrote a two-part investigative report titled “Lost in a Strange Culture” and “Alice-in-Chinatown Murder Case” for the Sacramento Union. The articles questioned the verdict of Chol Soo Lee’s trial for the original Chinatown murder and exposed a problematic investigation and procedural irregularities, including the withholding of exculpatory evidence.
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According to Jina E. Kim, professor of Korean literature and culture at the University of Oregon and author of “Broadcasting Solidarity Across the Pacific: Reimagining the Tongp’o in Take me Home and the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement,” the investigative articles revealed that police, defense attorneys and the judge had mistakenly identified Chol Soo Lee as Chinese. As a result, K.W. Lee’s articles exposed what Richard Kim calls “the ignorance, indifference, and racial bias of the California criminal justice system in its treatment of Asian Americans”.
KW Lee’s articles led to the formation of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee and the larger Free Chol Soo Lee movement. The national and global network included student activists, immigrant seniors, religious leaders and organizations, business owners, white collar workers, social workers, lawyers, legal aid organizations, activist groups radicals and media organizations and professionals from the Bay Area, the entire United States and across the world in Asia, particularly South Korea.
After raising money to hire defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, who had represented the Chicago Seven in their 1969 trial, Chol Soo Lee’s defense team filed a habeas corpus petition in July 1978, a legal action that protects incarcerated persons from unlawful detention. . Following a series of legal proceedings in the California criminal justice system, Lee was released from San Quentin State Prison on March 28, 1983 after serving nearly 10 years in prison.
Gabriel Jackson Chin, a professor at UC Davis School of Law, said: “The case is an important and early example of multi-ethnic APA. [Asian and Pacific Islander] political action…Furthermore, the non-disclosure of exculpatory evidence, leading to the habeas corpus petition, illustrated a persistent problem in the criminal justice system, where some members of law enforcement seem more interested in obtaining convictions than to ask for justice. ”
Impact of the Chol Soo Lee case and movement
The Chol Soo Lee case comes nearly a decade after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted discriminatory quotas targeting Asians and other ethnic groups from US immigration policy. . According to Richard Kim, the case of Chol Soo Lee was one of the first major political issues around which Asian Americans united during this time of historic change in the Asian American community. The Free Chol Soo Lee movement also inspired many young Asian Americans to pursue careers in social and public services.
While the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin is often cited as an example of anti-Asian prejudice and violence, the Chol Soo Lee case, which predated Chin’s murder, is less well known. Jina E. Kim says of the Chol Soo Lee case and Chin’s murder, “These two cases are very different, but they both involve misidentifying Lee as Chinese and Chin as Japanese. In many ways, these two cases point to the perpetual foreignization of Asian and Asian Americans in the United States, which is still a predicament today.
In 1989, the legal drama true believer featured a plot loosely based on the Chol Soo Lee case. The case was also the subject of a documentary Free Chol Soo Leedirected by Eugene Yi and Julie Ha, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The 2022 documentary brought attention to the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States amid the rise in racially-motivated violence and anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chol Soo Lee’s struggle after prison and death
After his release from prison in 1983, Chol Soo Lee spoke at schools and youth centers about his case and the importance of the Asian American community. Nonetheless, he struggled outside of prison, battling drug addiction and unemployment.
In 1991, Lee was hired by a gang to burn down the house of an organized crime boss. The arson went bad and Lee suffered severe burns all over his body. After his injury, Lee continued to speak in the Bay Area and worked with Richard Kim to write his memoir. freedom without justice. Lee died in 2014 at the age of 62 from complications resulting from his burns. His memoirs were published posthumously in 2017.