Flushing resident Han Tak Lee was exonerated after going to prison for 24 years for a crime for which he was wrongfully convicted: killing his daughter in the arson of a house. And Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) is working to prevent other people from suffering from the same predicament.
“We want to make sure that this type of wrongful conviction is not in New York,” Kim said during a press conference at his district office last Thursday, where he was joined by Lee and Asian Americans for Equality Executive Director Chris Kui.
After the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Lee’s request for a review of the prosecutors’ convicting evidence four years ago, the magistrate judge that led the review found that the theories used to convict him were based on “little more than superstition.” In 2014, he was exonerated.
Aiming to end the use of outdated investigative theories, Kim’s legislation aims to require all arson investigators in the state to be certified with the most recent National Fire Protection Association 921 guidelines.
Lee, who is 82 years old and emigrated from South Korea, has not received compensation from the State of Pennsylvania, despite having been incarcerated there on a false basis for a quarter of a century because of the state’s no-fault policy.
While he was serving his sentence in several Pennsylvania prisons, advocates for Lee’s release raised tens thousands of dollars to pay legal fees and aid him financially after his release. Upon realizing that the money was running out, the former inmate contacted Kim’s office in search of help.
In response, the assemblyman reached out to the Mayor’s Office. The Human Resources Administration began paying his rent with voucher subsidies after Kim reached out to Mayor de Blasio about the man’s ordeal.
Because his housing options are limited, AAFE is also assisting the exonerated man.
“In terms of trying to find affordable housing, we are actively trying to place Mr. Lee in one of our affordable housing units,” Kui said.
With a Kim staffer interpreting his Korean, Lee told his story.
His daughter was killed in a fire during a religious retreat in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains in 1989. Lee, who took the trip with her, appeared unemotional when he spoke to investigators — a common public reaction to tragic events in Asian cultures. This fact, the cultural dimension of which is not understood by many Americans, was cited by the district attorney as evidence for the case.
“It wasn’t based on any evidence of scientific proof that the fire was set by Mr. Lee,” Kim said.
The bill, which Kim aims to pass before the current legislative session ends, has not yet been introduced in Albany.
“After 25 years, I look forward to moving on from this ordeal, and hope the law that Assemblyman Kim has introduced will prevent cases like mine from happening again,” Lee said in a prepared statement. “I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for all who have supported me through these years, and to thank the elected officials and members of the community for the help that they have provided.”