HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A 79-year-old former New York businessman whose arson-murder conviction was overturned in the death of his daughter was freed from prison in Pennsylvania Friday after 24 years, following a judge’s ruling that the case against him was based on now-debunked arson science.
Han Tak Lee walked out of a federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after a judge released him on unsecured bond and restricted his travel back to New York — where he plans to live – as well as New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
An attorney said his first stop would be a medical and psychological checkup.
“I’m finally free,” Lee told reporters and supporters, in comments translated by an interpreter. “It is difficult to think (of) all the past 25 years — of my life, even though I was innocent.”
He thanked his legal team and supporters, saying he owed them “debts that cannot be repaid except by making the most of my renewed life.”
Kyung Sohn, a longtime supporter who went with a pastor to pick Lee up from the maximum-security state prison at Houtzdale, Pennsylvania, and take him to the courthouse, said, “It is great news for everybody.”
U.S. District Judge William Nealon threw out Lee’s state conviction and sentence of life without parole this month and gave prosecutors 120 days to decide whether they want to retry him in the 1989 death of his daughter, 20-year-old Ji Yun Lee.
Prosecutors have conceded the arson science used to convict Lee was faulty but insist that other evidence points to his guilt.
A county prosecutor told U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson that his office planned to seek a review, suggesting it may ask a federal appeals court to overturn the decision that released Lee.
Though he’s spent nearly a third of his life behind bars, Lee — a native of South Korea who became a U.S. citizen about 30 years ago — has never expressed any bitterness toward his adopted country, his attorney said Thursday.
“He doesn’t hold this against the United States of America,” said Peter Goldberger, who has worked on Lee’s case for about 15 years.
Goldberger also said Lee has no plans to return to South Korea.
“He’s an American,” Goldberger said. “He said this is his home.”
Lee is expected to live in an apartment for senior citizens in Queens, where he once lived and owned a clothing store.
Lee has long argued that the 1989 fire that killed his mentally ill daughter at a religious retreat in the Pocono Mountains was accidental. In 2012, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted his request for an independent examination of evidence. That review, completed in June by a magistrate judge, concluded that “much of what was presented to Lee’s jury as science is now conceded to be little more than superstition.”
At the time of his trial, investigators were taught that unusually hot and intense fires indicated the use of an accelerant and that arson could be confirmed by the presence of deep charring or shiny blistering of wood as well as “crazed glass,” tiny fractures in windows. Research has since debunked these and other notions about arson.
Lee’s case is one of dozens around the country to come under scrutiny because of outdated beliefs about how arson can be detected.
Monroe County, Pennsylvania District Attorney E. David Christine Jr., who prosecuted Lee in 1990, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
If he loses an appeal, Christine could seek to prosecute Lee again, but he has acknowledged it would be very difficult given the passage of time. Lee’s supporters expect he will live out his remaining years in freedom.
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