Judge vacates conviction, life term in fatal 1989 fire

Posted: August 10, 2014

In a major victory for a man who has served 24 years of a life sentence for setting the 1989 fire that killed his daughter at a Pocono Mountains religious retreat, a federal judge threw out the man's arson-murder conviction Friday and ordered him freed if a new trial is not held within 120 days.

Han Tak Lee, now 79, has maintained his innocence ever since the July 29, 1989, fire that killed his mentally ill daughter, Ji Yun Lee, 20, whom he had taken, at the advice of the family pastor, from their New York home to the Korean Christian retreat near Stroudsburg, Monroe County.

U.S. District Judge William Nealon vacated the conviction and life sentence - a rare ruling in the justice system and an acknowledgment that arson investigation has evolved over the last 20 years, with scientists now dismissing many of what had been considered classic signs of arson as discredited legends.

Peter Goldberger, Lee's appellate lawyer, said he would seek to have Lee released on bail while Monroe County District Attorney E. David Christine Jr. decides whether to retry him. Bradley Schmidt, an assistant prosecutor, said last month he doubted the case could be retried. He did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Goldberger said Lee should be released. "Justice demands that this be the end," said Goldberger, who has been representing Lee for 14 years.

Lee is among a handful of Pennsylvania inmates, including Daniel Dougherty of Northeast Philadelphia, who are seeking their freedom because of the evolving fire science, and there has been widening discussion within the justice system nationally about what to do with what could be hundreds of old arson cases that relied on now-discarded beliefs. Convictions already have been overturned in California, Michigan, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

Christine contended that Lee killed his daughter out of frustration with her escalating mental illness, while Lee's former defense lawyer tried to convince the jury that Ji Yun must have set the fire to kill herself.

In his ruling, Nealon accepted the recommendation of U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson, who concluded in June that most of what the jury in Lee's case had been told during the 1990 trial was based on a flawed analysis of the scene.

emilielounsberry@gmail.com

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