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.
- 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.
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.