Social justice activism in the Asian American community today owes much of its legacy to the pivotal but relatively unknown story of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American immigrant whose wrongful conviction for a 1973 gang murder in San Francisco galvanized a wide range of Asian Americans, who united to exonerate him—and made history in the process.
Lee’s heartbreaking, remarkable, and undeniably complex story is the subject of Chol Soo Free LeeThe film is by Julie Ha, Eugene Yi and other filmmakers. Its name comes from the Pan-Asian grassroots organizers who stood up for their freedom. The film, which releases in theaters on August 12, delves into Lee’s life and how he became the face of a movement that confronted some of America’s most shameful ills, including racial violence and mass incarceration—issues that have been part of a long history of violence towards Asians in America and that are still disarmingly relevant today, as racist attacks and hate incidents towards Asian Americans have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic.
After being racially profiled and wrongfully accused, arrested, and convicted for the murder of a local gang leader in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee was sentenced to life in prison. Lee also participated in an altercation in prison yards that saw him kill another inmate. Lee claimed that he was acting in self defense, but he was convicted of another murder and sentenced to the death penalty. In 1978, four years into Lee’s imprisonment, an investigative report into the gang murder by Korean-American investigative journalist K.W. Lee gave new light to the case. This led to the establishment of a pan Asian defense commission and a nationwide coalition of rising Asian American activists. These groups helped Lee secure a fresh trial and ultimately exoneration.
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For Ha, who first learned of Lee’s story at the age of 18 while being mentored by K.W. Lee, making the film was a way to bear witness to Lee’s resilience and to reflect an important aspect of Asian American history that could easily go forgotten.
While the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin is often pointed to as one of the seminal cases in helping to form the Asian American identity as we now know it, Lee’s case predated it by several years and many of the activists who were part of the Free Chol Soo Lee movement went on to organize around the Chin case, with Lee himself speaking out at rallies for justice for Chin. As for why Lee’s story is far less widely known than Chin’s is complicated—while both were central to Asian American history, Chin’s case, with its clear moral lines, could be seen as easier to digest than Lee’s, which involved criminal charges, incarceration, and later struggles with addiction and re-entry into society.
“There was no fairytale ending to Chol Soo’s story,” Ha told TIME. “There was this tremendous, victory of overturning two murder convictions to free this man from prison thanks to his landmark movement, but then upon his reentry, he stumbled so much. But this story must be known because we need to understand the full truth of our history and we need to embrace the truth and all its messiness.”
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For Yi, Lee’s story offers a chance to interrogate how we value history and legacy, allowing a look at whose stories are told and whose are forgotten.
“What do we expect of our heroes and our symbols for these movements? Is it necessary for them to be perfect? Because Chol Soo was not a perfect person, but who among us is?,” says Yi. “By telling the story the way we did, we’re happy to say that this is not just a celebration of the resistance and that moment in time but of Chol Soo’s resilience as well.”
Here’s what to know about Chol Soo Lee, his wrongful murder conviction, and the movement that secured his freedom.
Chol Soo, Lee served nine years for Chinatown murder. (Photo by John O’Hara/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images).
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Chol Soo Le?
Chol Soo, a Korean immigrant from Korea who lived in San Francisco became the face for an Asian American social justice movement. This was after he was wrongfully convicted of murder. Lee was born in South Korea, 1952. His mother had moved to America as a military wife in 1952. Lee lived with his aunt and uncle during his childhood. He later joined her at her home in San Francisco in 1964 at the age of 12, but had trouble adjusting to life in the U.S. Lee’s struggles at home, where his mother is alleged to have physically and emotionally abused him, and in school, where he was bullied, resulted in him being sent to juvenile hall and later a public mental institution, where he was incorrectly diagnosed with schizophrenia. In the film, friends of Lee’s noted that he was often the only Korean in the close-knit Chinese community of San Francisco’s Chinatown where he lived and worked.
Here are some facts about his conviction for wrongful murder
In 1973, when Lee was 21 years old, he was arrested for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a Chinese American man, a member of a local Chinese gang who had been shot to death in broad daylight on a busy street corner in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Lee was recently convicted for inadvertently discharging firearm. However, he was incorrectly convicted, despite the testimony of three tourists. Lee’s race was evident from the beginning. Although he wasn’t Korean, but a Chinese citizen, white officers made him a suspect as he is Asian. Investigators did not interview anyone from the Chinese community even though the murder occurred in Chinatown.
Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment at Deuel Vocational Institution, Tracy, California in 1974 for first-degree murder. In 1977, Lee was involved in an altercation in prison that resulted in him shooting Morrison Needham, a white supremacist, and killing him. Lee said it was self defense because Needham threatened him with stabbing, but he was again convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to San Quentin State Prison.
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What the Free Chol Soo Lee Movement did to create the Asian American Community we see today
In 1978, Korean American journalist Kyung Won “K.W.” Lee wrote a two-part investigative report on Chol Soo Lee’s trial for the Chinatown murder, revealing the various missteps and failings of the investigation, which included the withholding of exculpatory evidence. This report, which was very damning, sparked widespread mobilization among many Asian American groups across the nation. Pan-Asian Defense Committee and a National Coalition of Asian American Activists were formed. A national and international network of supporters, ranging from church members and radical student activists, rallied around Lee for justice. Yi notes that this mobilisation was notable, but the strength of solidarity between these diverse groups is remarkable.
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“It wasn’t expected that Asian Americans from different countries and different generations would come together like this,” he said. “These solidarities that formed were very unexpected because of the histories in Asia, like the Japanese and Koreans. Many of the immigrants who came to Chol Soo’s aid lived through war as well, so there wasn’t a lot there that would necessarily make them natural allies for third generation Japanese and Chinese American radical activists who were raised on the Black Panthers and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. But yet they found common cause and were able to work past the differences to achieve this miraculous victory to get him out.”
The movement to Free Chol Soo Lee resulted in funds being raised to hire attorney Leonard Weinglass, who defended the “Chicago 7”, and later, civil rights attorney Tony Serra, whose flamboyant persona was recreated in a 1989 film loosely based on Lee’s trial, A true believer. Lee submitted a petition to have a writ for habeas Corpus filed in 1978. It is a legal remedy that allows people to be released from illegal confinement. The hearing took place the same year. In 1979, Lee was awarded the writ. Lee was found not guilty of Tak’s murder in 1982 after a second trial. In 1983, Lee’s death sentence for killing Needham was nullified. Lee was freed on bail after nearly 10 years in prison.
How to find out about his acquittal, and what happens after he is released from prison
Lee became a well-known figure following his release from prison. However, Lee struggled with his integration into society. Lee is often unemployed and has battled addiction. He was not a happy man and he ended up in less than pleasant places, such as igniting a house to escape a gang that he had been part of since 1991. Lee suffered severe burns to his face and body when the arson project went wrong. Lee began to speak at schools and youth centres about community, crime, and the consequences thereof. He wrote his autobiography, “A Draft of His Life”, in his late years. Freedom Without Justice Richard S. Kim, a professor at UC Davis, completed the manuscript and published it posthumously. Lee was diagnosed with a gastric disorder in 2014. He died from complications.
For Ha, telling the story of Chol Soo Lee with this documentary was not only a way to shine a light on a forgotten part of Asian American history and its legacy of activism and resistance, but also a way to address issues for the Asian American community that aren’t often centered, like mass incarceration and the history of racial violence towards Asian people in America. “When you when you hear about incarceration, when you hear about criminal justice reform, when you hear about the importance of re-entry and recidivism, those are our issues, too,” she says. “There’s been a long history of racism that goes well beyond microaggressions.”
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