SYNOPSIS: On June 3, 1973, a man was murdered in a busy intersection of San Francisco’s Chinatown as part of an ongoing gang war. Chol Soo Lee, a 20-year-old Korean immigrant who had previous run-ins with the law, was arrested and convicted based on flimsy evidence and the eyewitness accounts of white tourists who couldn’t distinguish between Asian features. Sentenced to life in prison, Chol Soo Lee would spend years fighting to survive behind bars before journalist K.W. Lee took an interest in his case. The intrepid reporter’s investigation would galvanize a first-of-its-kind pan-Asian American grassroots movement to fight for Chol Soo Lee’s freedom, ultimately inspiring a new generation of social justice activists. [Source: Sundance Institute]
First time filmmakers, Eugene Yi and Julie Ha, tackle the forgotten wrongful conviction story of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant who gained public support after a wrongful conviction of murder. The conviction, based on cross-race misidentification, the police race to close the case, and faulty evidence, was overturned after Chol Soo spent 10 years in prison. The film not only sheds light on a broken justice system, but on the aftermath of wrongful imprisonment and Lee’s psychological turmoil of dealing with the sudden notoriety after his release in 1983.
A compelling documentary, the film provides the background for Chol Soo’s troubled and difficult childhood. His mother was a victim of rape. When she became pregnant with Chol Soo, her family disowned her, depriving her of any support system. After giving birth, she immigrated to the United States with an American soldier, leaving Chol Soo to be raised by his aunt and uncle. She later divorced and returned to Korea and demanded her son back. Chol Soo and his mother moved to San Francisco; she frequently subjected him to beatings and neglect. A quiet young man, he became a loner and ran away on multiple occasions and made many poor choices. Eventually, Chol Soo is convicted of felony theft, describing it as a desperate moment of hunger.
Two months before his probation is set to end, he is arrested for a murder for which he has no knowledge. Police arrested Chol Soo because he was in possession of a .38 Special, similar to the one used in the shooting. The film reveals that police failed to consider other suspects or disclose that Chol Soo’s ammunition was different than the bullets used to kill Yip Yee Tak. An unreliable and suggestive photo line-up was conducted; police used an outdated photo of Chol Soo. Five white-male witnesses picked Chol Soo’s photograph as the potential gunman. A ballistic comparison of the rounds used in the murder did not match those in the possession of Chol Soo. Furthermore, the few witness statements obtained by police describing the person who committed the murder did not match the description of Chol Soo Lee. Police deprived Chol Soo of his right to an attorney and his right to remain silent, coercing him into making a statement. After Chol Soo requested a lawyer, police continued to question Chol Soo telling him that if his story checked out, he would be released and not need an attorney. Nevertheless, an all-white jury convicted Chol Soo of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
An investigative reporter, K.W. Lee noticed several holes in the evidence in the trial. He began to interview Chol Soo on multiple occasions. K.W. Lee sparked the formation of the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee, which spurred a national pan-Asian movement. Chol Soo gained the support of a diverse population and finally won his free in 1983 through the help of the Committee.
The film reveals the struggles of the long and hard-fought road to exoneration. However, Chol Soo continued to experience conflict and struggled after prison.
Even as “Free Chol Soo Lee” explores this miscarriage of justice and the continued issues surrounding wrongful convictions, the film reveals the man behind the cause, and the complex legacy — and human cost — of becoming the symbol of a movement.