Free, Free Chol Soo Lee

Pictured above: Mourners laid down these roses, as they paid their respects to Chol Soo Lee at a Dec. 9 memorial service at the Yeo Lai Sah Buddhist Temple in San Bruno, California. Photo courtesy of Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly.


As this nation seethed, wept and marched this past month over a spate of African American male deaths at the hands of police officers from Ferguson to New York, a little known figure who embodied the painful, lasting consequences of racism in the justice system quietly left the world.

Chol Soo Lee passed away on Dec. 2 at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco. He was 62.

A small group of about 50 mourners gathered at Lee’s memorial service on Dec. 9 in a modest Buddhist temple in San Francisco, just 20 miles from the protests in Berkeley, where young people speaking out against the recent police killings were brandishing signs that read “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Some 35 years earlier, protestors raised their voices demanding justice for an Asian American life that also mattered—even as the criminal justice system seemed to be saying it did not.

F-CholSooLee-DJ14-Impact2Photo courtesy of Julie Ha

“He was the victim of racism, the prison industrial complex, prison gangs, lawyers who didn’t do their jobs, police officers who hid evidence in order to win a conviction,” said Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s elected public defender, during a eulogy at Lee’s memorial.

Though his name barely gets a mention in the halls of many university Asian American studies programs today, Chol Soo Lee’s wrongful conviction in a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown murder case galvanized a historic pan-Asian American movement, spanning the late 1970s to early ’80s, to win his freedom. Thanks to the persistence of those involved, as well as the pivotal stories a Korean American investigative reporter would write about the case, Lee received a new trial and was eventually acquitted. By 1983, he was a free man.

The movement to free the Korean immigrant brought together, for the first time, hundreds, if not thousands, of Korean Americans, Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans of different generations, religions, social classes and political leanings across the country. The movement predated Vincent Chin, the 1982 hate crime case of a Chinese American Detroit man that is often cited in Asian American studies classes. And it spawned a generation of Asian American attorneys, like Adachi, community activists and political leaders who were inspired to grow courage and consciousness for the cause.

But there’s another side to this story of social movement triumph and vindication for an innocent man. Before winning his freedom, Lee would spend 10 years in prison—several of them on death row after he was convicted of killing a white supremacist inmate, Lee said, in self-defense. And this decade-long kill-or-be-killed odyssey in California’s most notorious prisons would make living as a free man almost impossible for Lee.

“In life he died 100 deaths in that living hell known as the California prison system. And even in the free world, he suffered a thousand deaths,” said K.W. Lee, (no relation to Chol Soo Lee), whose coverage of the case over six years uncovered crucial evidence for Chol Soo’s defense team and sparked the large- scale movement to exonerate him.

K.W.’s sobering words spoke to the stark reality of a life that would never see enough fairness, justice and happiness in this world, despite that incredible gift of freedom given by a group of strangers. Chol Soo was gracious, never failing to thank his supporters. But he could not overcome the demons from prison, or even from his painfully troubled youth, that chased him all his life.

When mourners at his funeral, under red-hued lotus paper lanterns, chanted their old protest cry, “Free, free Chol Soo Lee!” inside the temple walls, those words took on a much different meaning than almost four decades ago, when their singular goal was to free an innocent man from prison.

The room felt heavy with regret; it wasn’t enough.

F-CholSooLee-DJ14-rallyF-CholSooLee-DJ14-StocktonCourthouseMembers of the movement to free Chol Soo Lee, which included third-generation Asian American college students and Korean immigrant grandmothers, rally outside the Stockton, Calif., courthouse, where Lee’s trial was being held, in 1978.
Photo courtesy of Gail Whang via Amerasia Journal (2013)

* * *

An immigrant from South Korea, Chol Soo Lee came to the U.S. in 1964 at age 12, settling in San Francisco to reunite with his single mother. She had given birth to Chol Soo at a roadside inn on Aug. 15, 1952, amid the Korean War and on the seven-year anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation. Banished by her family in Korea for having an affair with a city man and getting pregnant out of wedlock, she left Chol Soo to the care of her impoverished sister and her husband, who had seven children of their own.

Chol Soo would live a dirt-poor, but happy, childhood; he said his aunt and uncle treated him like one of their own. So, when his mother came back to retrieve him from Korea, he was actually upset to be leaving the only family he had ever known. He had hoped by coming to America, at least, he could earn some money to send back to his relatives in Korea, but when he arrived in San Francisco, his visions of America’s riches were quickly dashed.

He watched his mother working two jobs 16 hours a day—as a cannery worker by day and a cocktail waitress by night. Meanwhile, Chol Soo endured taunting at school because he could not speak English and was very short for his age. School officials seemed quick to label him dangerous. As a junior high student, Chol Soo, then standing 3-foot-4, was convicted of assault and battery after allegedly kicking a school principal during a scuffle that ensued when the youth tried to explain in broken English that he did not start a fight with a fellow student. Sensing he was a disappointment to his mother, and fearing her beatings for his troubles, he often ran away from home, only to be found and taken to juvenile hall. While there, Chol Soo attempted suicide, tying a wet towel around his neck, though he would later say he did that to get attention and go home. Lee would spend time in a foster home and state mental institutions.

“Thus began the Americanization of Chol Soo Lee, with good intentions and benign ignorance paving the road to a private hell for the bewildered boy from Seoul, Korea,” wrote K.W. in his first story about Chol Soo, in 1978, for the Sacramento Union. “As Chol Soo Lee ruefully recalled years later, there was not a single Korean interpreter or counselor or teacher or lawyer who crossed his path in classrooms, juvenile halls, foster homes, youth camps and California Youth Authority facilities.”

Due to his brushes with the juvenile justice system, Chol Soo’s teenage mugshot was in the police books. It was this mugshot that eventually led to his arrest years later, in June 1973, for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a local Chinatown gang leader, who was shot dead on a busy street in broad daylight. Three eyewitnesses—all of them white tourists who said they saw the gunman for mere seconds—picked Chol Soo out of a lineup of six Asian males. Though Chol Soo, 20 at the time, maintained his innocence, his first public defender did little to help his case, failing to locate witnesses to corroborate Lee’s alibi that he was nowhere near the crime scene.

Within a year, Chol Soo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His mother, with her limited English, felt powerless to help him.

Though Chol Soo had no money or influence to wield in his defense, he did have the early support of a few critical individuals, including a community center worker named Tom Kim and an acquaintance named Ranko Yamada. But theirs remained a small effort, until K.W. stumbled upon the story in 1977. The investigative reporter had read a small blurb in the newspaper about an Asian convict named “Chol Soo Lee” who was facing the death penalty after killing an inmate belonging to white supremacist gang following a prison yard brawl. The story stopped the reporter in his tracks because he had a nephew, who had just earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, with the exact same name. “This Chol Soo Lee in prison could be your nephew. He could be you,” the Korean-born reporter remembered thinking.

After launching an exhaustive six-month investigation into the case, K.W. wrote a series of stories that raised troubling questions about the circumstances surrounding Chol Soo’s conviction four years earlier. Chol Soo, who stood at 5-foot-4 and weighed 125 pounds, was much smaller than eyewitness descriptions of the gunman (5-6 to 5-10, 145 to 165 pounds), and had a mustache at the time of the crime, though not a single witness mentioned this facial feature to police. The San Francisco police identification process also was highly prejudicial—of six eyewitnesses, the two who identified Chol Soo as the killer had previously viewed his mugshot and had selected it along with several others that looked like the gunman. Of those men, only Chol Soo was in the police lineup.

K.W. also learned there was a spate of Chinatown gang violence during the period around Tak’s death, including 16 unsolved murders, and that political pressure weighed on local authorities to make an arrest in this latest crime. Asian community insiders K.W. interviewed said they felt the prosecution’s theory that Chol Soo, a Korean, was a Chinatown gang enforcer for money “defies the common sense experience of the Asian community.” Inexplicably, Chol Soo was even identified as “Chinese” during his trial by a testifying police officer, with no correction made to the record.

“Murder Witness Steps Forward” and “Polygraph Supports Convict’s Claim,” read just a few of the stirring headlines from K.W.’s 100-plus stories about the botched case, which the reporter once likened to the plot of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

The revelatory articles would help spark the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement, with supporters forming Chol Soo Lee defense committees across the country, bringing together Asian American college students and community activists, as well as Korean immigrant grandmothers, business owners and churchgoers.

“[Chol Soo] really was a symbol of an expression for Koreans who had been feeling some discrimination, some hardship in this country, and not having a voice or [a way] to speak up about some of the injustices they were feeling,” said Gail Whang, who joined the effort in Northern California. “I remember we … organized the halmeonis to come out. They had so much compassion and fight for this wrongdoing. At the same time we had halmeonis, we had young students. At our rallies, we had young and old.”

Supporters from San Francisco to New York to Hawaii and even South Korea produced educational pamphlets about the case; tabled at community festivals; put together church presentations; and raised money through car washes and dance parties. Much of the funds raised, exceeding $100,000, were used to hire defense attorneys for Chol Soo.

All the while, the young convict was sitting on death row, fighting for his day-to-day survival in San Quentin, one of California’s most violent prisons. Many of Chol Soo’s supporters wrote letters to him, developing a personal relationship with the man at the center of their movement; Whang said that he answered every single one.

F-CholSooLee-DJ14-TeamMembers of the legal defense team for Chol Soo Lee (left to right): John Young, Sook Nam Choo, Tony Serra, Ranko Yamada, Tink Thompson, Stuart Hanlon and Jay Yoo.
Photo courtesy of Grant Din via Amerasia Journal (2013)

Aided by K.W.’s findings, a new team of defense attorneys secured Chol Soo a new trial in January 1979. On Sept. 3, 1982, the seemingly improbable happened: a San Francisco jury acquitted Lee of the Yip Yee Tak murder. By March 1983, Lee was a free man, after a California appeals court nullified his death sentence in the jailhouse killing.

“I’ll never forget the moment when the jury came back in the Chinatown retrial and announced the verdict,” recalled Adachi, who, as a UC Berkeley student, joined the Free Chol Soo Lee movement after reading about the case in the newspa- per. “Time stopped. Chol Soo turned to the audience (where many of his supporters were seated), and he thanked everyone. Then he turned to the prosecutor and the police, and he said that they should never do this ever again.

“When I think back to it now, I wonder how we even thought that we could win,” Adachi added. “It was not only improbable that Chol Soo Lee would be free, but now when I think about it, it seems impossible. His supporters were idealistic and [we] really knew very little about what we were up against. But we had a burning desire for justice, and that came from Chol Soo. It came from his determination and the fact that he never gave up, even in the face of being convicted of a second murder and being sentenced to death row.”

F-CholSooLee-DJ14-MomChol Soo lee walks out of prison, his mother by his side, on March 28, 1983.
Photo courtesy of Grant Din via Amerasia Journal (2013).

* * *

Chol Soo spent his first day as a free man with the venerable Seouljo Lee, a monk in San Francisco who had put up his Buddhist temple as collateral to help raise money for Chol Soo’s bond.

“I remember going to the beach with him, and he was screaming loudly to feel what it was like to be a free man,” said Seoljo Lee, speaking in Korean. But the years that followed held fewer happy memories the monk can recall.

“My only wish for Chol Soo was for him to live as an ordinary man, rather than a criminal or even a hero,” he said in his eulogy at Chol Soo’s memorial service. “But I am persistently ashamed that I could not play a supporting role for Chol Soo to even become just an ordinary person.”

In the years following Chol Soo’s release from prison, it was no secret to his supporters that he had a difficult time adjusting to life outside prison walls. There were no re-entry programs waiting for him in 1983. He had some brushes with the law, returning to prison in 1990 to serve 18 months on a drug possession charge, and became involved in some Chinatown gangs for the first time in his life.

Lee himself said part of him remained in prison. He found work as a janitor and union organizer, but as he revealed in a 2006 interview with Alice Kim, an activist with grassroots or- ganization the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, he didn’t realize how “institutionalized” he was. “I started using cocaine. It got worse and worse. It eventually led to me resigning from the work, and I was back in the streets,” he said.

In 1991, Chol Soo was severely injured during a fire he set while working for a Hong Kong organized crime triad. He suf- fered third-degree burns to over 85 percent of his body. The burns disfigured his face and caused him multiple health issues for the rest of his life.

Chol Soo spent several years living under three different identities as part of the FBI’s witness protection program after surrendering information about the gang he worked for—a deal that allowed him to avoid prison time.

“He had more problems after his release,” said K.W., “demonstrating how far we have to travel for those who come out of prison. Isn’t that a great irony? In freedom, [Chol Soo] was a deeply troubled man. He had to cope with things he never had to experience while in the living hell [of prison]—he had problems with drugs, then there are no jobs, no chance for rehabilitation.”

K.W. and Chol Soo grew to share a close bond. When the journalist required a life-saving organ transplant in the early 1990s, Chol Soo told K.W. he wanted to offer him one of his kidneys. “Chol Soo, I need your only liver,” K.W. told him. They enjoyed a good laugh over that, said K.W., who brought to the memorial service a monk’s walking staff that Chol Soo had carved out of a tree and given to the journalist about five years ago. Chol Soo, said K.W., polished it a thousand times as part of his “therapy in the free world.”

“I had really hoped his life was going to become more normal, but the reality is we fought and struggled hard to get him released, and we were not prepared,” said Peggy Saika, who worked on the Free Chol Soo Lee movement and recalled his 3 a.m. collect calls from prison. “When you’ve been incarcerated that long and when you grew up the way he grew up, you need a lot of love and support, and I don’t think the movement was ready to the extent that he needed it.”

Saika kept in touch with Chol Soo over the years; she and her husband used to dine out in San Francisco with Chol Soo, and he would even call her when he was in witness protection. Despite all his own troubles, Saika recalled, Chol Soo always insisted on asking how she, her husband and children were doing. She calls him a kind and thoughtful friend whom she loved.

But he was also lonely, Saika said, and battled depression. “I’m so proud of him because, despite all that, he never gave up,” Saika said, pausing as she broke down crying. “He really never gave up. Knowing him for so long, I felt like I knew parts of him that were really about who he really was. He never had the chance to become that person.”

Long after his release, Chol Soo kept trying to fulfill a vision of freedom that was so hard earned by thousands of people across the country. In recent years, Chol Soo spoke to Asian American studies classes in nearby colleges about his experience. One goal of his was to advocate on behalf of incarcerated Asian Americans, so that when they left prison, they would have a fighting chance.

“There are so many times I thought he really should have died, and he just kept on getting back up,” said Ranko Yamada, an attorney based in Berkeley and a key member of Lee’s support team in the earliest days. “That’s what so sad, because he tried so hard, so many times, more than what I would expect anybody to do. He just kept getting back up, back up.”

A college student while working on the Free Chol Soo Lee movement, Yamada said she was inspired by the case to become a lawyer. “He was one of the most important people in my life for so many years,” said Yamada, who became an attorney while Chol Soo was in prison and joined his legal team. “He’s a part of who I am, who my friends are, what I did out of that—[his case] helped shape my world.”

In the end, Chol Soo did more for those who worked on his case than they could ever do for him, said Adachi, the public defender in San Francisco. “There are many of us who would not have reached the critical understanding of our society had it not been for experiencing the Chol Soo Lee case,” he said. “Chol Soo Lee, and all he stood for, is more relevant today than ever. What we’re experiencing as a nation, in Ferguson, in Staten Island, these police shootings, the injustice of the criminal justice system, the racism that still exists on every level, conscious and unconscious, and the incarceration of people of color—all of those things were at the heart of the Chol Soo Lee case.”

K.W. Lee and Chol Soo Lee in Atlanta, GeorgiaChol Soo Lee (left) and K.W. Lee pose for a picture, after paying respects at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King tombs at the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, in September of 2007.

* * *

In 1989, Hollywood made a film called True Believer, starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr., that was loosely based on the Chol Soo Lee case, but the movie left out the key roles of K.W. and the Asian American community—and failed to humanize the plight of the man at the center of the case, telling the tale of one of his heroic white attorneys instead.

Before his death, Chol Soo penned his own story, the memoir Freedom Without Justice, collaborating with Asian American studies scholar Richard S. Kim of the University of California, Davis. While it was completed, Kim said he is still working on getting it published.

Kim often invited Chol Soo to speak to his Asian American studies classes; it was the highlight of the class, the professor said. Kim called Lee an “organic intellectual” who was a natural speaker with an incredible memory. He can’t help but wonder what Chol Soo could have become, if given the chance.

Kim said that Chol Soo’s story of racism, classicism and injustice resonated with many of his students. The ex-prisoner’s parting message to them was always the same, one encapsulated by Lee in a 2005 interview with Kim: “I feel that the greatest message that could be given from the Chol Soo Lee movement is that … 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 [American] community,” Chol Soo said. “I think we live in a world of selfishness. All the past movements, the civil rights to gain the right to attend schools and so forth, and now that education is being used for ‘everything is for me.’ We have no room to share with others. I think that if [my] story could be told, yes, there is small room there. There are still deprived people, even more deprived people than in the past. The need to give today is far greater than in my own time.”

* * *

Chol Soo Lee’s exact cause of death was not known at the time this article was going to print. Doris Yamasaki, a 77-year-old Korean immigrant who was like an aunt to Chol Soo and knew him since he was a child, said he had been vomiting and had gone to the emergency room on Nov. 18. Doctors wanted to perform surgery on Chol Soo to relieve some kind of blockage in his digestive system, but Yamasaki said he declined. He died at 4 a.m. on Dec. 2—before Yamasaki’s younger sister Donna could bring him the juk she made for him.

Before his passing, Chol Soo told Yamasaki that once released from the hospital, he was going to take her daughter, Ann, to the zoo. Ann, said Yamasaki, is 44, but “like a 9-year-old” after suffering brain damage at birth. She was close to Chol Soo; they liked to shop at dollar stores together. While he was a burn victim in the early 1990s, Yamasaki said Ann, on her own, took three buses to visit Chol Soo in the hospital. “Chol Soo always talked about that,” Yamasaki said, laughing at the memory.

Her daughter has not cried about Lee’s passing. “She don’t show any sadness,” her mother said. “She act like Chol Soo didn’t die.”

* * *

In 1978, members of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee produced a 45 vinyl single of the song, “The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee.” It attempted to distill the broken dreams of a Korean immigrant man, but also carried a message of hope and resolve.

Chol Soo Lee came to this country to walk the streets of gold

All he found were broken glass alleys where the gangs were pushin’ dope

He tried to find an honest job to try to make ends meet
Do you sell your soul tryin’ to make ends meet

Do you sell your soul tryin’ to earn that gold?
Do you hustle in the street?

Strange ways in a foreign land made it difficult to belong
The Chinatown scene for a Korean man was a dream that had gone wrong

A captured bird in a gilded ghetto What did he hope to be?
What did he hope to see?

The chorus goes:

He’s not the only one Nor does he stand alone Joined by us all
His spirit will carry on

There are things to see, truths to hear, there is life to be sung.

There is work to be done.


This article was published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December/January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).