Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American who was wrongfully convicted in a 1973 murder case that sparked a pan-Asian movement and subsequently won his freedom, died Tuesday at the age of 62, reported KoreAm. Lee’s family members have said his death is a result of surgical complications.
Lee immigrated from South Korea as a child. In 1973, at the age of 21, he was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder for the shooting of San Francisco Chinatown gang leader, Yip Yee Tak. He was sentenced to life in prison. Asian American supporters, including Sacramento Union reporter, K.W. Lee (no relation to Chol Soo Lee), rallied to Lee’s side after his conviction. K.W. Lee wrote more than 100 articles questioning the grounds for Lee’s conviction. This sparked the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement, a pan-Asian American movement that united Asian American college students, community activists and immigrants to demonstrate on Lee’s behalf.
While in prison, Lee killed a fellow prisoner in self-defense and was placed on death row. In 1982, Lee was acquitted by a San Francisco jury of the Yip Yee Tak murder. A year later, he was freed after a California appeals court nullified his death sentence in the jailhouse killing. Overall, Lee spent 10 years in prison for his wrongful conviction, 8 of these years were spent on death row.
In a 2005 interview, Lee shared the message he hopes Asian Americans will take away from his own brush with injustice:
“I feel that the greatest message that could be given from the Chol Soo Lee movement is… the purity, the unselfishness, the integrity of people, giving to a stranger. And I think that message needs to be brought back to the Asian community.… The need to give today is far greater than in my own time.”
A memorial service for Chol Soo Lee will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 9, at 11 a.m. at the Yeo Lai Sah Buddhist Monastery, 200 San Bruno Ave., West San Bruno, CA 94066.
For more on Lee’s life after he got out of prison, read KoreAm.