A documentary of his story was shown at the Sundance Film Festival
The Sundance Film Festival is a popular event which is generally held in January each year in Park City, Utah. Started by Robert Redford, the Festival is a good place for documentary films to be showcased. Asian American filmmakers have been included. This documentary film, "Free Chol Soo Lee" was shown at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
It was a false arrest which happened nearly fifty years ago. A Korean immigrant was convicted of a gangland murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Sentenced to death for a lurid 1973 San Francisco murder, Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee was set free after a pan-Asian solidarity movement of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese Americans helped to overturn his conviction. After 10 years of fighting for his life inside San Quentin, Lee found himself in a new fight to rise to the expectations of the people who believed in him. On his journey from an inspiring icon to a swing-shift janitor struggling with drug addiction, Chol Soo Lee personifies the ravages of America’s prison industrial complex. [From the film's website]
Journalists Julia Ha and Eugene Yi are co-directors of a new documentary film which tells the story of the Asian American movement which exonerated Lee for the wrongful conviction. The Asian American movement to free him included people who were convinced that he was innocent and had not been treated fairly.
A member of a local young gang was shot to death in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1973. Lee had served time in juvenile hall and had been written up for accidentally discharging a firearm in his room. A white witness picked Lee out of a police lineup. Lee was a 21-year-old Korean immigrant at that time. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1974 and sent to prison.
Lee was serving a life sentence when he was convicted of fatally stabbing another inmate. He said the killing in 1977 was in self-defense against a self-proclaimed white supremacist who was trying to stab him.
Since that was his second murder conviction, he was transferred to a state prison and put on death row. Kyung Won “K.W.” Lee was an investigative journalist who became interested in the case. K.W. questioned the ability of the white witness to identify Lee.
A Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee was formed. It raised more than $100,000 to hire attorneys and investigators. A retrial of his first case was held, and a San Francisco jury acquitted Lee of the Chinatown murder on September 3, 1982. Lee was released from prison on March 28, 1983, after his second conviction was overturned. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the prison case to avoid facing another challenge with the legal system.
Lee felt like an outsider for much of his life. The producers of the film were touched to see so many people supporting him. He toured to thank his supporters for some years. His difficult upbringing and the wrongful conviction took its toll. He became addicted to cocaine and returned to prison in 1990 on a drug charge. He became involved with some Chinatown gangs.
He was ordered by the gang to commit arson in 1991 and suffered severe burns. He entered witness protection to testify against the gang. He spent his final years speaking to Asian American studies classes at nearby universities. He died in 2014 at the age of 62.
The producers of the documentary thought it was important to tell Lee's story. He had major problems, but he kept trying even though life was difficult for him.
Watching this film about a person of Asian descent living in America can help the general public learn about diversity, racism, adversity, hardship, fortitude, and perseverance.