New fire-expert analysis OKd in father’s arson conviction

Posted: January 27, 2012

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a man who contends that he was wrongfully convicted of setting a 1989 fire that killed his daughter may have a prominent fire expert examine any remaining physical evidence to determine whether the fire was accidental.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit came in the case of Han Tak Lee, 76, who is serving a life sentence. His lawyers argued that he was convicted by junk science and that research since his 1990 trial has debunked many of what were once considered ironclad indicators of arson.

The fire took place at a religious retreat in the Poconos, where Lee had taken his daughter, Ji Yun Lee, 20, to get help for her escalating mental problems.

In a 17-page opinion, Third Circuit Judge Dolores K. Sloviter said that Lee "has a convincing claim of innocence" and that if his expert's analysis "establishes that the fire was not of incendiary origin, then that would be clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable fact-finder would have convicted Lee."

Lawyer Peter Goldberger, who represents Lee, called the ruling a "giant step forward in our quest for justice" that could eventually "lead to his freedom."

Monroe County District Attorney E. David Christine Jr. said he might ask the Third Circuit to reconsider or the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

The panel, which also includes Third Circuit Judge Thomas Vanaskie and U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel, sent the case back to U.S. District Court, where a judge would oversee the effort to have fire expert John J. Lentini examine any remaining physical evidence from the fire.


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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