By John Sammon
The case of Chol Soo Lee a Korean falsely accused and then jailed for murder will no doubt take its place alongside that of Fred Korematsu and other Asians who in the past were illegally imprisoned and whom the U.S. justice system failed to fairly represent.
“This is an important film,” said Ranko Yamada, a retired attorney and one of the community activists who helped gain Lee his freedom. “This is what people can do when they work together. It’s a part of Asian-American history. It’s an immigrant story.”
A documentary film newly released titled “Free Chol Soo Lee” tells the story of a young man whose troubled past got him framed for a murder he did not commit. It’s a story of racism and the difficulties of immigrating to a country where you don’t speak English. The story has a happy ending of sorts, if losing a decade of your life behind bars to be released when new evidence proved your innocence can be called happy.
Yamada appears in the film which premiered on Public Broadcast Service (PBS) on April 24.
“I hope a lot of people see the film, those who have never been aware of this case,” Yamada said. “In this instance the Korean community came together to support a kid falsely accused of murder. But it was also Pan-Asians, and people who were not Korean who helped.”
The film portrays legalistic bungling and deliberate fabricating or withholding evidence including failure to question 30-plus Asian witnesses at the crime scene.
Lee was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1973 murder of Yip Yee Tak, a San Francisco Chinatown gang leader. Born in Seoul, Korea, Lee was the son of a woman raped and abandoned by family members. She subsequently married a U.S. soldier, immigrated to the U.S. and left her son to be cared for by an aunt and uncle. In 1964 she returned to Korea to bring Lee now 12 years old to the U.S.
Not speaking English Lee had a hard time in San Francisco and became what Yamada described as a “street kid.”
“He (Lee) started getting into trouble,” Yamada said. “There were no resources to deal with him. All the (public service help) classes were for Chinese.”
Chol Lee’s crimes were of the nonviolent variety.
In 1965 Lee was declared mentally disturbed. He underwent incarceration in several mental hospitals and youth detention facilities including the California Youth Authority.
Tak was gunned down on June 3, 1973 in San Francisco’s Chinatown during a gang war between the rival Wah Ching and Joe Boys gangs. At the time Lee was on probation after pleading guilty to a grand theft charge and serving 180 days in the County Jail.
Lee’s troubled past and his foreign-ness made him an easy and convenient suspect in the murder.
As the wheels of the justice process turned the litany of failures in Lee’s case included incompetence, stupidity and outright fraud. A lineup of suspects was to be held. Three witnesses identified Lee from mugshots but only Lee appeared in the lineup, no other suspects. A bullet found at Lee’s apartment was later determined to not match a bullet found at the murder scene. Police officials later said they had proceeded anyway because it was necessary to obtain a conviction.
Witnesses who could testify that Lee was somewhere else at the time of the killing were ignored.
Lee was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on July 10, 1974. He was imprisoned at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California.
Yamada said the title of the jail might be laughable (it sounds like a job training camp). Instead it was a place of detention for hardened criminals.
“It was one of the most violent of prisons,” she said.
In October of 1977 Lee killed a fellow inmate claiming self-defense. This resulted in a second trial and he was sentenced to death. In 1979 Lee was transferred to San Quentin State Penitentiary.
However, during this time he had a dribble of luck.
A reporter named K.W. Lee working for the Sacramento Bee newspaper and dubious about the original conviction undertook a six-month investigation of the case. He began to submit his findings as articles in the Bee. In 1980 Leonard Weinglass, famed as the attorney who defended the Chicago Seven accused of fomenting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention was assigned the case as a defense attorney. He withdrew in 1982 and lawyers Tony Serra and Stuart Hanlon joined the defense team.
“This kid (Lee) was a friend of mine,” Yamada said. “I had met him before his arrest and it seemed highly unlikely that he did the murder. All the media said it was a gang killing.”
Support groups began to form in the community talking about the case including meetings held in Korean churches in the Bay Area. Donations from Lee supporters began to be made.
“The response was huge,” Yamada said. “Asian people could understand. They donated money, not big checks but small donations. Over $100,000 was raised to hire investigators.”
New records and documents in the case that had been unexamined or ignored were acquired.
“A lot more paper was delivered to the investigators,” Yamada said, “documents and statements from witnesses that the police had never turned over.”
In August of 1982 a retrial of the first murder case was conducted and in September a San Francisco County Superior Court acquitted Lee of the Tak killing.
Lee had spent nearly 10 years in jail. He was released in 1983 after supporters pledged more than twice the amount of his $250,000 bail. Yamada’s own parents pledged the value of their Bay Area home as bail (if Lee fled the country they could lose their house).
Lee settled on a second-degree murder charge for the jail inmate killing with a condition of immediate release (no parole).
“Why we did this was because we did not want to go through a second retrial,” Yamada said. “Chol Lee wanted it he wanted complete vindication. But we’d have some risk with a second trial. Lee agreed to settle.”
Yamada’s parents had been imprisoned during World War II because of their Japanese heritage. They were held in the Rohwer Concentration Camp (titled at the time a Relocation Center) in Arkansas and Tule Lake in Northeastern California. This was a camp for alleged troublemakers, some of whom refused to sign a questionnaire examining their loyalty or who protested their illegal imprisonment.
After the war Yamada’s dad Ren Yamada became a gardener and later ran a small retail nursery in Manteca.
“Chol Lee reminded me of my dad,” Yamada said. “He was born in Sacramento into a family of farm workers and they traveled harvesting crops (San Joaquin Valley). At the age of four he was sent back to Japan to live with relatives and then returned to the U.S. when he was 17. He hadn’t learned English.”
Her mother (maiden name Chiyo ‘Doris’ Murano) was a housekeeper who also helped her husband run the Manteca nursery and worked for the U.S. Postal Service.
Yamada grew up in Stockton, attended college in Santa Cruz in 1974 with a political science major and then enrolled at Hastings Law School where she got her Law Degree.
“I became an attorney partly due to this (Chol Lee) case,” she said.
While working with others to free Lee from imprisonment Yamada collected volumes of documents related to the case. These she made available to the documentary filmmakers. Supporters who worked on the case and helped to raise money included Yamada’s husband Bob Matsueda, and her son Ken Matsueda.
After prison Chol Lee became something of an activist himself speaking to young people about the importance of justice and engagement among the Asian American community. He never received an apology or compensation from the state and lived the remainder of his life in San Francisco. He died in 2014.
“He had a hard life. People who see the film will see the tragedy of it,” Yamada said.
There was a memorial service for Chol Lee in 2015. A journalist named Julie Ha and K.W. Lee (the Bee reporter) were moved by the loss. K.W. Lee asked Yamada, “Why is this case still underground (unknown)?”
Julie Ha teamed up with a fellow independent journalist named Eugene Yi to direct the film. Beginning in 2016 it took six years to make. The film had a showing at the Sundance Film Festival held last January at Park City, Utah. It runs 83 minutes.
“I was very impressed with it when I saw the film,” Yamada said. “The materials (documents) that we used for the community outreach to free Lee were used for the film and it includes recorded interviews of the people involved.”
Yamada said hundreds of supporters including young activists from communities in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York worked for Lee’s release.
“This is not just a Korean issue,” Yamada said, “and not just Asians. Justice is an American issue. We can never take it for granted.”
The film can be seen on Youtube by typing in, “Wrongfully Convicted of Murder Free Chol Soo Lee.”