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In 1974, Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant in his early 20s, was accused and wrongfully 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 a prison yard altercation, which led to another first degree murder conviction and a death sentence.
After a series of investigative articles by journalist K.W. 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 the San Quentin State Prison in 1983.
The Chol Soo Lee case exposed bias and injustice in the U.S. 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 of Asians.
“Chol Soo Lee’s case helped forge a new political consciousness among many young Asian Americans, opening their eyes to the social inequalities and workings of institutional power in U.S. society,” says Richard Kim, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and the editor of Chol Soo Lee’s memoir Freedom Without Justice: The Prison Memoirs of Chol Soo Lee.
Chol Soo Lee was a Korean immigrant born to a Korean woman and an American soldier in the South Jeolla Province in South Korea in 1952. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1964 when he was 12 years old to reunite with his mother, who had previously arrived to the United States as a military bride, according to Richard Kim’s introduction in Freedom Without Justice. Lee’s mother was abusive and he had difficulty adjusting to life in the United States, according to Kim. He was bullied, sentenced to juvenile hall for fighting, and later sent to the public mental institution, Napa State Hospital, where he was mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia.
On June 3, 1973, when Lee was 21 years old, he was arrested for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a Chinese American man with ties to the Wah Ching gang, who was found shot dead on a street corner in San Francisco’s Chinatown. After three out of six white eyewitnesses identified Lee as the gunman in a police lineup, 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 he was serving his sentence, Lee was in a prison yard altercation with a neo-Nazi named Morrison Needham and stabbed him to death in what he claimed was an act of self-defense. Lee was convicted of first degree murder for the stabbing, sentenced to death, and transferred to death row at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 1978, journalist Kyung Won Lee, who published under “K.W. Lee,” wrote a two-part investigative report titled “Lost in a Strange Culture” and the “Alice-in-Chinatown Murder Case” for The Sacramento Union. The articles called into question the verdict of Chol Soo Lee’s trial for the initial 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, a professor of Korean Literature and Culture at the University of Oregon and the 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 the police, defense lawyers, and the judge had misidentified 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.”
K.W. 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, elderly immigrants, religious leaders and organizations, business owners, white-collar professionals, social workers, attorneys, legal assistance organizations, radical activist groups and mass media organizations and professionals in the Bay Area, the broader United States and across the world in Asia, especially South Korea.
After raising funds to hire defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, who had represented the Chicago Seven in their 1969 trial, Chol Soo Lee’s defense team filed in July of 1978 a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a legal action that protects incarcerated people from unlawful confinement. 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 having served nearly 10 years in prison.
Gabriel Jackson Chin, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, says, “The case is an important, early example of multi-ethnic APA [Asian and Pacific Islander] political action…In addition, the non-disclosure of exculpatory evidence, leading to the habeas corpus petition, illustrated a continuing problem in the criminal legal system, where some members of law enforcement appear more interested in obtaining convictions than they are in seeking justice.”
The Chol Soo Lee case occurred nearly a decade after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted discriminatory quotas targeted against Asians and other ethnic groups from U.S. immigration policy. According to Richard Kim, Chol Soo Lee’s case was one of the first major political issues that Asian Americans united around 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 service.
While the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 is often cited as an example of anti-Asian bias and violence, the Chol Soo Lee case, which preceded Chin’s murder, is lesser known. Jina E. Kim says of the Chol Soo Lee case and the Chin murder, “These two cases are very different, but they both involve the misidentification of 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 U.S., which is still a pressing predicament in the present day.”
In 1989, the courtroom drama True Believer featured a plot line that was loosely based on the Chol Soo Lee case. The case was also the topic of the documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, directed by Eugene Yi and Julie Ha, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022. The 2022 documentary has drawn attention to the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States amid the rise of racially-motivated violence and anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After he was released from prison in 1983, Chol Soo Lee spoke at schools and youth centers about his case and the importance of the Asian American community. Nevertheless, he struggled outside of prison, battling with addiction and unemployment.
In 1991, Lee was hired by a gang to burn down the house of an organized crime leader. The arson went wrong and Lee suffered severe burns across 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. His memoir was published posthumously in 2017.