Man who served 24 years released after arson-murder case thrown out

BY Carey Reed  August 24, 2014 at 3:58 PM EDT


A New York man was freed on bail this week, after serving 24 years of a life sentence in a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania.

Convicted of arson and murder, Han Tak Lee, 79, a native of South Korea who lives in Elmhurst, NY., was imprisoned in 1990 for intentionally setting a fire a year earlier at a religious retreat in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. The fire killed his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter, Ji Yun Lee.

While Lee maintained that the fire was started accidentally, his conviction was based on the belief that arson fires burn at a higher intensity than accidental ones. Scientific advances since his conviction have shown that evidence to be faulty.

“It is now understood that the principal determinant of the heat and intensity of a fire is a natural element, the oxygen, and not artificial accelerants,” court documents said.

Lee was released on Friday after a federal magistrate granted him $50,000 bail.

“I don’t know how to express my happiness now to finally put this behind me and become a normal U.S. citizen,” Lee said through an interpreter outside the courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on Friday.

“Our obligation is to find the truth and reach a prompt and fair adjudication of the issues before us,” Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson told Reuters.

Last week, U.S. District Judge William Nealon, threw out Lee’s murder conviction, but the judge gave Monroe County prosecutors 120 days to decide if they would retry Lee, who is not permitted to travel outside of New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 1,409 exonerations since 1989, when the first exoneration by DNA occurred. Twenty-two percent of those exonerations were due to false or misleading forensic evidence.