How Asian Americans United to Free an Innocent Man on Death Row in SF

Chol Soo Lee

In the late 1970s, Asian Americans mobilized to call for the release of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American man wrongfully convicted of murder.

The national effort, spearheaded by a dedicated committee, is regarded as one of the earliest pan-Asian American movements for justice — and reminds the community of its strength in unity.

A rough start in life: Lee, the son of Korean mother and an American soldier, had a difficult life growing up.

Advertisement
  • Born in Seoul in 1952, Lee immigrated to San Francisco with his mother in 1964 when he was almost 10-years-old. However, he reportedly proved too much for her to handle, so he ended up in a series of foster homes.
  • In 1965, the city public school system and juvenile authorities determined that he was mentally disturbed and placed him in hospitals.
  • The following year, he escaped a foster home but was picked up by the California Youth Authority (now California Division of Juvenile Justice).
  • Lee then served a 13-month sentence under the CYA. This detention, as well as his previous hospitalizations, effectively limited his American education.

Wrongfully accused: In 1973, an innocent Lee was arrested for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a leader of the Chinese American gang Wah Ching, which operated in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

  • Tak was shot to death on June 3, 1973, amid a gang war between Wah Ching and Chung Ching Yee (also known as the Joe Boys), another Chinese American gang.
  • Lee was taken into custody four days later.
  • Based on the accounts of only three white witnesses, Lee was convicted on June 19, 1974.
  • He was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy.
  • Lee’s case became more complicated after he killed Morrison Needham, a neo-Nazi inmate, in a prison yard altercation. Lee, who claimed self-defense, was charged with murder with special circumstances and sentenced to death in March 22, 1979.

Coming together: As Lee spent his days behind bars, a pan-Asian effort known as the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee formed to work toward his release.

  • In June 1977, Kyung Won Lee, an investigative journalist from the Sacramento Union, embarked on a six-month journey into the Chinatown murder case. He published articles that questioned the life sentence verdict in January 1978.
  • Kyung Won Lee’s ongoing investigation prompted the formation of the Committee. It was led by then law school graduate Jay Yoo and Davis school teacher Grace Kim in Sacramento; third-generation Japanese American college student Ranko Yamada and third-generation Korean Americans Gail Whang and Brenda Paik Sunoo in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • In May 1982, the Committee raised $100,000 to support Lee in the retrial of his first case. That retrial took place in August and he was acquitted the following month.
  • In January 1983, California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal nullified Lee’s death sentence for his second case. Prosecution attempted a retrial, but Lee’s lawyers were able to plea bargain, leading to his release in August of that year.
  • In an interview with Richard S. Kim, the journalist acknowledged Yamada as responsible for growing his support to a pan-Asian national coalition. “She drew other Asians into the movement when the Korean community was starting to build support for me,” he said.

In 1991, Lee and a friend were hired to burn down a house of a syndicate leader — a botched plan that left him with third-degree burns on 90% of his body. He pleaded guilty to the arson and was sentenced to three years probation.

Advertisement

Lee spent the rest of his life working as a union organizer and an advocate for Asian Americans. He died on Dec. 2, 2014 in San Francisco.

Featured Image Screenshots via KGO (left) and katsumigumi (right)

Total
38
Shares
Related Posts