Appeals court won't reinstate conviction in 1990 Pennsylvania arson-murder
Han Tak Lee, who spent 24 years in prison before a judge threw out his arson-murder conviction, speaks during an interview in the Queens borough of New York, July 1, 201. (AP / Mary Altaffer)
An elderly man who spent 24 years in prison for his daughter's death in a fire will remain free after a federal appeals court on Wednesday refused to reinstate his murder conviction.
Han Tak Lee, 80, a native of South Korea who earned U.S. citizenship, was exonerated and freed last year after a judge concluded the case against him was based on since-discredited scientific theories about arson. Prosecutors appealed, saying that other evidence pointed to his guilt.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, meaning Lee will stay out of prison.
The New York City shop owner had taken his 20-year-old, mentally ill daughter to a religious retreat in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains where, prosecutors say, he set fire to their cabin. Lee has long contended the 1989 fire was accidental.
Lee, who returned to Queens after his release from prison, did not answer his phone Wednesday. He told The Associated Press in an interview last month that he still loved America and "I expect America to make the right decision."
His attorney, Peter Goldberger, called on prosecutors to let the ruling stand.
"I hope, now, that they will finally see there is no basis for this conviction," Goldberger said. "They can say it's nobody's fault, that science changed, that this is over now, and the federal court has had the last word."
District Attorney David Christine, who prosecuted Lee in 1990 and whose office lost the appeal, did not immediately return a text and email seeking comment.
Lee's conviction was one of dozens to be called into question around the U.S. amid revolutionary changes in investigators' understanding of how an intentionally set fire can be distinguished from an accidental one.
A state police fire marshal had testified at Lee's trial that the wood in the Lees' cabin was deeply charred and blistered, that the windows had a series of tiny fractures and that he had found at least eight separate points of origin for the fire -- all evidence of arson, according to the orthodoxies of the day.
The jury convicted Lee of murder and sentenced him to life without parole.
After years of appeals, the 3rd Circuit granted Lee's request for an independent review of the evidence. The review, led by a magistrate judge, concluded the expert testimony used to convict him was based on "little more than superstition."