Han Tak Lee
Han Tak Lee
Convicted 1990
Exonerated 2014
Death of daughter.
Sentence: LWOP

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    PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A federal appeals court has granted another look at the evidence in the case of a man convicted of killing his daughter in what authorities alleged was an arson fire two decades ago in eastern Pennsylvania. Defense attorneys and some arson specialists say that determination was made using what's now considered flawed science.

    The 3rd
    U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday granted 76-year-old Han Tak Lee's request for an independent examination of evidence from the July 1989 fire that killed 20-year-old Ji Yun Lee at a religious retreat in the Pocono Mountains.
    Attorneys for Lee argue that advances in fire science now show that expert testimony was unreliable.
    Defense attorney
    Peter Goldberger says his client is "delighted." Monroe County District Attorney David Christine says an appeal is under consideration.
    Science Casts Doubt on Arson Convictions

    By ROBERT TANNER The Associated Press Saturday, December 9, 2006; 6:24 PM

    EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. -- The firefighters could see the blaze flickering over the hill before they even reached the church camp.

    By the time they got to the five-room cabin, it was already too late. Ji Yun Lee lay curled in a ball on the floor. Flames roared over and around her.

    Her father, Han Tak Lee, sat silent, barefoot on the grass outside. The night sky above him glowed orange as electrical arcs sizzled and popped.

    Investigators quickly sifted through the sooty ashes, the charred walls and floor, the melted roof and the buckled pipes and came up with an explanation: arson _ and murder. Lee, they said, had killed his daughter.

    The clues were everywhere. From patterns on the cabin's floor to collapsed springs on the furniture, most of the lessons taught to budding fire investigators turned up in the cabin. The local experts _ the county fire marshal, a state-hired fire analyst, a chemist _ spoke without hesitation that the evidence proved arson.

    No one questioned their conclusion. Not the jury _ not even the defense attorney disputed that the blaze was intentionally touched off with a flammable fluid.

    It was a textbook case, and Lee was dealt a guilty verdict and a life sentence.

    Except the textbooks were wrong. Within a few years of Lee's conviction, scientific studies smashed decades of earlier, widely accepted beliefs about how fires work and the telltale trail they leave behind.

    Today, fire investigators are taught that the clues relied upon in the 1989 investigation of the cabin fire don't prove anything more than an accident.

    And some of the leading U.S. experts on arson say that Lee _ an immigrant who worked six days a week to bring his wife and daughters from South Korea to America _ was the victim of a horrible tragedy, not a criminal. There could be hundreds more like him, people wrongfully convicted of arson, these experts say.

    Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that the prosecution's case was built on bad science.

    "I never killed my daughter. I never set the fire. I'm not the right person to be here," Lee, now 71 and hair going gray, says through a translator during an interview at Rockview medium-security prison in central Pennsylvania. "This is not arson. This is an accident."

    A definitive count isn't possible, but the best estimate of leading fire investigators across the country is that there could be hundreds of mistaken arson prosecutions, all built on the same ideas that were uprooted more than a decade ago.

    The new arson science could become the most powerful tool to reveal wrongful convictions since DNA testing began overturning rape and murder cases in 1989. So far, 186 men and one woman have been freed because of the new technology.

    This isn't just about correcting the historical record. Not only are people behind bars because of faulty arson investigative techniques, others may be on their way. Critics say that some investigators, in rural counties and big cities, resist the new science and prosecute cases based on discredited methods.

    "How do you know someone's guilty if you don't know a crime has been committed?" says Richard Custer, principal architect of a pivotal document on arson.

    Another investigator _ John J. Lentini, a widely known fire expert who has worked with national arson investigation groups to unravel the old misconceptions _ has been a consultant on Lee's case, analyzing evidence and testimony.

    His conclusion: "While the Commonwealth's witnesses may have believed that they were testifying truthfully, the fact is that the jury was misled by objectively false testimony."


    Things were rough for the Lee family that summer of 1989.

    Han Tak and his wife, Esther Lee, had lived apart seven years while he got his start in the United States. She and their two girls stayed in Seoul.

    Now the family was together in New York City and tension was high.

    There were long hours at the Lees' clothing store on Seventh Avenue near Madison Square Garden, where all the family worked. And Han Tak was too strict with the girls _ too traditional, too many rules, Esther recalls as she traces the journey of her troubled marriage.

    Worst of all, Ji Yun, 20 and the oldest child, was ill again after a few years of calm.

    Manic depression had surfaced a year or so after they immigrated. Medication had helped, so well that she got into a prestigious art college to paint, but things were unraveling again.

    "She didn't eat. She didn't sleep. She couldn't be still," says Esther, sitting in her quiet apartment in Fort Lee, N.J. A painting by Ji Yun _ flowers, a blur of purple, white and green _ sits next to the lone couch. "I was exhausted."

    Their Pentecostal pastor thought prayer might help. It seemed like a respite: a trip out to the countryside, hours from the city, a quiet, cool retreat with preachers and prayer.

    So Lee woke early on that summer Saturday and father and daughter set off. They drove across the bridges out of New York, out on the interstate to rural Pennsylvania, to the church camp and its small, wooden cabins. And they prayed, with one and then two pastors, until the wee hours of the morning.

    That's when everything went much, much worse.


    Up until the 1990s, this is what fire investigators were taught:

    _ Fires always burn up, not down.

    _ Fires that burn very fast are fueled by accelerants; "normal" fires burn slowly.

    _ Arsons fueled by accelerants burn hotter than "normal" fires.

    _ The clues to arson are clear. Burn holes on the floor indicate multiple points of origin. Finely cracked glass (called "crazed glass") proves a hotter-than-normal fire. So does the collapse of the springs in bedding or furniture, and the appearance of large blisters on charred wood, known as "alligatoring."

    Firefighters and investigators arrived at these conclusions through decades of observation. But those beliefs had never been given close scientific scrutiny, until an effort that began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s.

    "There were a lot of rules of thumb, but very little scientific understanding," said Jonathan Barnett, a professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a leader in the investigation of the World Trade Center collapse.

    Once researchers began to apply the scientific method to beliefs about fire, they fell apart.

    A major revelation came from greater understanding of a phenomenon known as "flashover." When a fire burns inside a structure, it sends heat and gases to the ceiling until it reaches a certain temperature _ and then in a critical transition, everything combustible in that space will catch fire. Instead of a fire in a room, now there is a room on fire.

    When that happens, it can leave any number of signs that investigators earlier thought meant arson _ like the burn holes on the floor that used to prove multiple starting points. And it can cause a fire to burn down from the ceiling _ not up as investigators had been taught.

    Significantly, flashover can create very hot and very fast-moving fires. And it can occur within just a few minutes, dashing the concept that only arson fires fueled by accelerants can quickly rage out of control.

    And the crazed glass? It comes from water being sprayed on hot glass, not a hot fire. The collapse of bed springs and the "alligatoring" _ they can't say anything definitive about a fire's cause.

    The studies began to chip away at the old beliefs _ critics call them myths _ but it took years. Through the 1980s, texts at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., still taught the traditional techniques.

    It wasn't until 1992, when a guide to fire investigations by the National Fire Protection Association _ "NFPA921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations" _ clearly laid out, in a document relied upon by authorities nationwide, that the earlier beliefs were wrong.

    "It's not that they're bad investigators or there's been any conspiracy to promulgate erroneous conclusions _ it's just the way it was," says Custer, the former associate director of the national Fire Research Laboratory and one of the principal editors of the 1992 guide.

    "How many years did we think the Earth was flat?"


    In the calm, cool hours before daybreak on July 29, 1989, firefighters carefully put the charred remains of Ji Yun's body onto a blue sheet. Investigators quickly became suspicious.

    When the first responders arrived at 3:22 a.m., Han Tak Lee seemed calm. He didn't cry. He sat on a bench across from the burning cabin with two bags of luggage at his feet. He "remained complacently seated throughout," Patrolman James D. Leigh-Manuell wrote in his police report at 9 p.m. that night.

    State Trooper Thomas Jones, doubling as county fire marshal, wrote in his report a week later: "Mr. LEE remained almost emotionless and while in view of this officer made no attempts to console his wife (when she arrived from New York later that day). Mrs. LEE on the other hand was being escorted to the scene and upon nearing the burnt building almost collapsed and had to be physically assisted from the scene."

    Prosecutor E. David Christine Jr. held Lee's demeanor against him.

    "Helping her up wouldn't be an admission of emotion, would it, ladies and gentlemen?" he asked during his closing arguments. "That is what a husband does to his wife when their daughter is dead, and only a few hours dead?"

    Several jurors later acknowledged how much that swayed them.

    But Koreans say that men traditionally don't express much emotion, and never in public. And Lee is nothing if not traditional, his wife and surviving daughter say.

    "Koreans don't go crazy with emotion like Americans," adds Dr. Louis Roh, a Korean-American deputy medical examiner in Westchester County, N.Y., who briefly was involved in one of several appeals.

    Lee says now that, watching the cabin burn, he was overwhelmed and stunned into silence.

    "I found that I just lost my spirit and my mind there. It felt like all the blood drained out of my body," he says. "In Korea, men are not allowed to cry. If your daughter is suddenly found dead, there's nothing you can do. You just lost your soul. You can't even think."

    When authorities interviewed Lee through a translator that morning (he speaks very little English), his story didn't convince them:

    He had fallen asleep exhausted after praying and woke to the smell of smoke. Fire was in the other bedroom in the small cabin, his daughter's bedroom. He ran out. She wasn't outside. He ran back, called for her, didn't hear or see her, thought she had already escaped. He threw the luggage out the door. He banged on the bathroom door and, overcome by smoke and fire, went out the back door.

    Jones, who was called to the scene before dawn, had his mind made up by 8 a.m. That was when he received word from the coroner that Ji Yun had only a small amount of carbon monoxide in her blood _ too little, he instantly concluded, to have died from smoke inhalation.

    "It tripped a red flag to me. ... This girl was probably dead when the fire started," he testified in court. "At that point in time, instead of being at a fire scene, I was now at a crime scene."

    The coroner, however, concluded in his documentation of Ji Yun's death that she was alive when the fire started and was killed in the blaze. Another of the state's arguments _ that Lee had poured 60 gallons of fuel oil to start the fire _ was never scientifically challenged. It doesn't stand up, Lentini argues now, because it would have flooded the cabin, turned up in chemical tests and burned the arsonist.

    But the morning of the fire, with a crime already suspected, the pieces soon fit into place, lining up neatly with the lessons the investigators had been taught at the National Fire Academy.

    Pour patterns on the floor that indicate multiple points of origin? Check.

    "Alligatored" charring? Check.

    Crazed glass? Check.

    Damaged furniture springs? Check.

    Investigators had the evidence to back up their suspicions. Han Tak Lee was a killer.

    Lee's lawyer never disputed the conclusion of arson. He argued instead that Ji Yun, suffering from a mental illness, had started the fire herself to commit suicide.

    The family has never accepted that. She was a quiet and troubled girl, they say, but also an innocent and religious one who viewed suicide as a sin.

    The jury didn't accept the defense attorney's argument, either. They believed the experts.

    On Sept. 17, 1990, they convicted Lee of murder.


    Lee's case was largely forgotten, but not by the Korean-American community or by people in his homeland.

    Koreans here bristled at what was seen as cultural prejudice, convinced he was viewed with little sympathy in small-town Pennsylvania.

    Lee had been a respected businessman in New York and, back in Seoul, a high school teacher with many admirers. His students, and even former classmates, raised money for lawyers. They won support in their fight from the South Korean government, though it led to naught.

    An appeal on inadequate counsel won him a hearing, but no change in the outcome.

    An appeal last spring sought a new trial, arguing that scientific advances in arson investigation essentially created new evidence.

    Christine, Monroe County's district attorney, did not return repeated phone calls. An assistant argued before the court that the new science was, in effect, simply "two expert witnesses that have opposing views." A Pennsylvania state court agreed and rejected Lee's claim.

    Lee's attorneys appealed that decision on Nov. 27 to the state Supreme Court.

    Other experts have looked at Lee's case and agreed with Lentini's conclusions. "That's a perfect example of a system run amok," says David M. Smith, a former city bomb and arson investigator in Tucson, Ariz., who retired to start his own investigation firm.

    If successful, Lee's case could become one of a few opening the door to scrutiny of arson convictions nationwide.

    Another is the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas after courts there refused to consider his claims of innocence. A panel of experts hired by The Innocence Project, known for its work using DNA to expose wrongful convictions, concluded that the fire that killed Willingham's children was accidental.

    It's a nightmare, where a defendant's truthful account is held up as lies because the court's accepted expert is scientifically wrong, says Barry Scheck, an attorney and co-founder of The Innocence Project. "We need a systemic re-examination, an audit, of these old arson cases," he says.

    How many could be wrongfully convicted of arson?

    There are 500,000 structure fires overall a year; 75,000 of them are labeled suspicious. Lentini, who has campaigned widely to improve investigators' knowledge, says most experts he talks with believe the accuracy of fire investigators is at best 80 percent _ meaning as many as 15,000 mistaken investigations each year.

    Convictions are far fewer, but it's naive to imagine some juries aren't convinced, he says.

    "Even though we've made enormous advances in the past 15 years, I keep getting all these cases that might as well have been done in the '70s or '80s," says Gerald Hurst, a fire investigator in Austin, Texas.

    The hardest part is that there's often no clear guilty party or explanation with arson, as DNA can provide. In the Lee case, another defense investigator argued the blaze started from a short in an electrical cord, but Lentini says the hard evidence either burned up or was ignored by the county investigators, and later destroyed.

    For the Lees, there's no getting past the tragedy that took Ji Yun. But they still want one more chance from the justice system.

    In prison, Han Tak Lee exudes a kind of desperate hope as he meets with a reporter and translator. For the lone Korean speaker at the 2,061-inmate prison, it is a rare chance to hear his native language. "I never regret," he says. "I have very strong faith. I will get out as a free man."

    Back in New Jersey, his wife can't shake her sorrow.

    She doubts the justice system. She questions her own anger after her daughter's death, guilty that it may have convinced investigators to charge her husband. And she is unsure about coming to this country at all, given what befell her family.

    "We had American dream," she says. "We dreamt about a better life. But the better life didn't happen."

    Still, a small dream remains.

    If Han Tak could be free, she would like to bring her husband a meal. Something simple _ some rice, some kimchi, some barbecued meat. A meal that tastes like home.


    AP Interactive Designer Jenni Sohn contributed to this story.

    © 2006 The Associated Press

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    Arson-Murder Rap Tossed, Han Tak Lee Set Free After 24 Years In Prison


    ap_wire  | By MICHAEL RUBINKAM


    A man freed from prison after his arson-murder conviction was overturned says it's difficult to think about the 24 years he lost.

    Seventy-nine-year-old Han Tak Lee was released on bail Friday from the federal courthouse in Harrisburg while prosecutors decide whether to appeal a ruling that threw out his conviction in his daughter's 1989 death.

    A federal judge this month found the conviction was based on now-discredited arson science.

    Lee spoke through an interpreter. He thanked supporters and vowed to make the most of his new life. The former New York City clothing store owner plans to live in the Flushing area of Queens.

    Prosecutors have said they will probably appeal the judge's decision, claiming other evidence still points to his guilt.

    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, New York, where he once lived and owned a clothing store, while prosecutors decide their next move.

    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.

    Goldberger said Thursday he would oppose any appeal of the judge's ruling to throw out the conviction and "seek to have it declared frivolous and dismissed."

    Monroe County 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.